16 May 2018

David is Reporting "Safe" from the Great Nagano Earthquake of May 2018 -- 600kms done and dusted

Emerging at the top of the climb between Nagano-shi and Hakuba

This weekend I rode an AJ Chiba 600km event, with a midnight Friday night start. It was a spectacular, challenging ride, with many highlights. I want to thank the Chiba organizers for carefully planning our route.

AJ Chiba is the Chiba-based chapter of Audax Japan. Because Chiba is mostly a peninsula on the far eastern edge of Honshu, it is somewhat isolated. You can't get anywhere by going "through" Chiba, though Chiba itself has some lovely seacoast, beaches, and Japanese countryside. Sure enough, the course for this Chiba-sponsored ride went from Tsuchiura, Ibaraki, northeast of Tokyo, to Hakuba, on the northwestern edge of mountainous Nagano Prefecture, and back again. The route did not go through Chiba ... except for a tiny sliver of the prefecture around Noda that mysteriously extends between Ibaraki and Saitama.
The Renovo "Firewood" bike, resting in view of the Northern Japan Alps

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The Earthquake!

As I was getting a bite at a convenience store, during the descent from Karuizawa to Ueda in eastern-central Nagano Prefecture on Saturday late morning, about 10 1/2 hours into the event, I checked my phone, and saw an earthquake alert!

Apparently there had been a major earthquake in the area of Nagano City and Ogawamura, to my northwest.  In those areas near the epicenter of the shallow quake, this event measured "5" on the Japanese scale of shaking intensity. Oh no!

Of course, I remembered seeing an exhibit at the castle in Matsumoto nearby, which presented the many times the castle buildings had been totally destroyed by quakes over the past few hundred years. I imagined buildings in Nagano at angles, roadways cracked, survivors screaming the names of their loved ones and digging through debris of collapsed houses.

I had planned to join a March 12 brevet in 2011 and needed to cancel because of the March 11 disaster -- no train service even to Nagoya for the start and no one in a mood for a ride, even in places far away from the Tohoku tsunami and the nuclear plants that were just going into meltdown that Saturday. Then in 2016, our Kumamoto Fleche was cancelled because of the Kumamoto earthquake a few days before our planned event. Landslides covering roads, relief teams en route -- not a time for a cycling event. Would this be a third time, but DURING the ride? 

Our route would put us at the center of Nagano City a few hours later, and then that night we would go through Ogawamura and again ride along the southwestern edge of Nagano City. We could not very well continue the ride if first responders were engaged in rescue operations, road surfaces cracked, worries spreading about food and water supply!

I went back into the convenience store and asked the clerk about it ... he was a bit older and looked as if he might be a franchisee/owner. He shrugged. "Yeah, we felt a little shake here".  What about damage in Nagano City? "Haven't heard about any." I decided to press on.

After a few minutes back on the bike, I came to a "secret checkpoint" -- two of the AJ Chiba staffers checking us off and making sure we followed the correct route, instead of taking a fairly obvious shortcut. I asked about the quake? Had they heard? "Yes." Well, what of it? Would the ride go on? "Sure".  Any damage in Nagano City? They shrugged their shoulders.

A few hours later I rode through the area near the epicenter of the quake, going South to North right through the center of Nagano City, past major buildings, government offices, and up the hills, along the edge of Shinshu University Education Department's campus.

It looked chaotic that afternoon. The streets were jammed (... with usual weekend afternoon traffic). An evacuation area, typically used as an athletic field or school "ground", was full of people (... who, judging from the uniforms I saw and the age of those wearing them, were not SDF or firefighter "first responders", but rather seemed to be playing and watching a high school baseball game). 

Seriously, I did not see ANY damage, nor any sign that there had been an earthquake a few hours earlier. The same was true for Ogawamura ... where we descended a highway in the pitch dark at very high speeds for nearly 20 kms to get to the last checkpoint of Saturday. It would NOT have been a happy occasion to come across a massive crack in the road at such speeds.

Yes, one fellow rider noted, they really do need to fix the nationwide earthquake alert system to weed out minor ones that do not cause any damage. I guess at this point anything in Nagano that will be damaged by a mere "5", (okay, it was "5 minus"), has already been damaged. Everything left standing is sturdy enough to get through a quake. Maybe they need to up the threshold for these nationwide alerts to everyone's mobile phones?

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The Start
Reflective vests show the riders signing in -- around 30 showed, of fewer than 45 who signed up.

The midnight start was at a river's edge just south of Tsuchiura Station -- less than 1 hour and about $20 by train from Shinagawa via the "Tokiwa" express. Somewhat fewer than 45 persons had registered for the ride, and I don't think any more than 30 showed up. Midnight start? 600kms? Mountains en route? Something other than the threat of an earthquake had scared them away. At least the weather forecast looked great -- a beautiful Saturday, and a cool Sunday with rain only coming in the evening, long after our finish! I even took the fenders off my chosen bike, the wood-framed Renovo, so that I could fit it easily in a "rinko" bag for the train.

At the start, I recognized several of the Chiba organizers by face, if not by name. And some of the riders were familiar as well. One, Nitta-san, came up and introduced himself as having done the Utsunomiya ride 2 weeks ago. Another, who said his first name is Kijiro, ended up riding the first 100kms with me. As we rode he said he had lived in Sydney and Tasmania at one time and that he wanted to get a fast start since he is not a strong climber. I could have said the same ... he finished at least 2 hours ahead of me!  (This was my slowest 600km yet, except for the Seattle summer gravel grinder). Anyway, it was good to have a riding companion in the early, dark stretches. He was not as much of a stickler for traffic rules and signals in the middle of the night in the countryside as many Audax riders -- I guess from the experience of living abroad!

The pre-ride briefing was quite different from some I have heard. Yes, it did include some key information (at turn 95 on the cue sheet, go "right" instead of "left"), it focused mostly on where one might get good food along the route in the hours we would be riding. The speaker was obviously NOT going to settle for convenience store fare on his rides. I could have kicked myself for not having pen and paper handy, though I swear I noticed a few of the places mentioned as I passed. In the end, I ate almost entirely at convenience stores this trip.

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Outbound
Heading toward Takasaki on Route 354 at first light

Still no traffic on Saturday morning. It gets light between 4 and 5AM this time of year.

Waiting for a traffic light (same old, same old) along the river near Takasaki, with Kijiro and two others
Anyway, I made great time with Kijiro to the 62km checkpoint, and still good time with him and then others (after I fell behind him) through Takasaki and up a very slight slope to the 150km checkpoint west of Annaka.  From here, I knew we had a climb ahead - the mightly Usui Pass, with its 175 marked curves. Seriously, it is not much of a climb, starting around 400m elevation and cresting just under 1000m, with less than 7% grade and plenty of flat stretches. And it was beautiful, cool and green. I still felt okay at the top, into Karuizawa.
View of the Gunma mountains -- and electric wires -- from Route 18 Bypass near Annaka

A bit further along -- same mountains, still high voltage electric wires

The classic shot - Meganebashi (the "eye glasses bridge") and bicycle,
on the quiet old road, Route 18 climb to Usui Pass/Karuizawa
Karuizawa took longer to get through than I remembered. And there was heavier mid-morning traffic. I had already ridden 180 kms. I started to tire and was saved only by the long descent down the "Asama Sun Line".
Starting down the "Asama Sun Line" toward Komoro then Ueda
After my convenience store stop and the secret control, we joined a Route 18 bypass around the northern side of Ueda, hugging the hills, then crossed the Chikuma River and stayed mostly on local Route 77 all the way to Nagano.  We were going into a headwind now, and well over 200 kms into the ride.

Obasute

I passed a sign for "Obasute" train station.  "Oba-sute" or "Uba-sute", literally translates as something like "abandoning grandma" and refers to the mythical ancient Japanese practice of abandoning older women family members to die by exposure in winter, when there was not enough food to feed the rest of the family.  There is no good evidence that this was actual practice, but they did name the town and train station after it, and so I guess elderly women, past child-bearing age, were not seen as serving much social function back in some parts of pre-modern Japan. You can see a depiction in the 1958 classic film "Ballad of Narayama". There is even a woodblock print of a son carrying grandma off to the mountain in the train station.
Grandma grabs a branch -- she doesn't want to go?
I am told that the reason grandma is grabbing a branch is NOT to fight her son, but rather so that he will be able to find his way home through the woods by following the fallen, broken branches. And indeed, in the film, the grandma accepts her fate that she will be abandoned on the mountain in her 70th year. Rather, her only concern is that she must first find a wife for her son so that he can be happy without her.

Quail Confections

Our route went past what looked like a very tranquil setting for a shinto shrine. There was a sign for "Uzura-Mochi" at what looked like a shop/cafe and there was an "Uzura Hotel". I think of "Uzura no tamago" and so know that "uzura" is quail. Sure enough, these are quail-shaped rice confections (dai-fuku). I did not try one, but I did enough the peaceful shrine grounds for another brief rest. 
Structure in Hachimangu shrine in Chikuma

Entrance to the Hachimangu shrine grounds in Chikuma

Massive tree trunk and some of the shrine grounds
I've been through Nagano on bicycle a number of times before, but this time the route took me past many prefectural and public buildings. I noticed the signage for the courts, tax collectors, the judicial scriveners' hall, and various prefectural and regional offices, as well as Shinshu University. After climbing a short hill to a "T" we finally turned left onto Route 406, to a checkpoint and then onward through the hills and to Hakuba.

The "Town With No Demons"
Reservoir on the climb from Nagano-shi to Kinasa
Old farm buildings and Route 406 in upper Kinasa
The road keeps going up, gradually, for a long time. Fogged camera lens.
At the checkpoint AJ Chiba staffers told me it was 18.8 kms to the top, with 1000 meters' elevation gain to a pass around 1400 meters elevation. That was wrong. Actually, it was 33 kms to the tunnel/pass at the top, just above Hakuba, and the elevation at the top was more like 1100.  But the route had plenty of up and down (~300 meters of down with 1000 of up?), so at least they were correct that the total elevation gained on this stretch was close to 1000 meters.

The upper valley was rustic, and beautiful, and we were there at a great time of year, farmers planting in the fields on their tractors in the muck of rice paddies, flowering trees, a nice "michi-no-eki" in the town where they were selling soft ice cream cones. All was good, except my exhaustion and the unremitting brevet schedule limited my ability to enjoy it all. I would love to go by train to Nagano and then ride my bike through here, on my own schedule.

I loved the name of the town. I could read the characters, which seemed to say "demon" "none" "town", or 鬼無里.  The word for "town" used is "sato", which is more like "hamlet" or "village" or "my hometown", a more personal term than "machi" or "mura". A very familiar, friendly word. The name of the town is pronounced Kinasa, readings I had never heard before for those characters. Hard to forget -- the town with no demons ... but one demon-like, never-ending, gradual hill!

I rested any number of times, and the top never seemed to come. Until it did. And it was spectacular, with a view across to the Northern Alps of Japan stretched in a line above Hakuba. I remembered this view from Tokyo-Itoigawa almost a decade ago ... except then we were down in the valley, looking at the peaks through electric wires. This was, indeed, worth the entire trip.
The elderly photographer stayed fixed in this pose for at least 5 minutes as I snapped shots.
He was waiting for the perfect sunset shot.
I did not have time to wait for the sun to descend ... spectacular vista from Route 406 up the hill east of Hakuba
Hakuba

In the dimming light, Hakuba looked very welcoming. The rivers, mountains, forests, friendly, smiling younger folks who looked as if they worked at ski lodges or on the slopes in the winter.  I wanted to stay and explore the town. But, to quote Captain Jack Aubrey, there was not a moment to lose!
River at Hakuba Village

Road at Hakuba Village
The next section was riding around the back side of Lake Aoki at dusk. I've gone by this lake many times on a bicycle, but always on the main highway. Our route took us in a loop around the western shore, through woods past cottages and leisure facilities, always with trees above and the lake to the side. Not a single car, nor other bicycle, was seen until I arrived at the checkpoint at the far end of the lake.  The soft light was magical.  I ruled out the idea of trying to capture it in a photo. Too dark and dim for that. You had to be there.

Night Ride

On the return, it was a short (5km?) climb, then a long (25km?) descent through Ogawamura to the last checkpoint of Saturday.  The descent was pitch dark, black, with no traffic until several roads had merged further down the valleys. After yet another convenience store check-in, I considered my position. I was done with all of Saturday's climbing, probably 70% of the elevation covered, even if only 55% of the distance. And despite the Kinasa slog and many rests, I was still around 2 hours ahead of the time limit arriving at this checkpoint. Now there was a long flat stretch back to Ueda, then the one climb over Karuizawa, and more downhill and flat to the finish. I started to feel confident about completing the event within the time limit. I just needed to get to the next checkpoint, between Annaka and Takasaki, by 6:56 AM. Piece of cake. Oh, and several at the checkpoint noted that the weather forecast had changed. It would be raining in Nagano by morning, and in Kanto by mid-afternoon Sunday. This was about 6-8 hours earlier than the previous forecast. Maybe I should have brought those fenders along?

I left the checkpoint alone, and rode only very occasionally seeing others. I was clearly toward the back of a very small pack of randonneurs. I wanted to sleep, at least for an hour or two. But Local Route 77 had little in the way of sleeping candidates. No 24 hour coin laundries, no internet cafes, no Gusto family restaurants after Chikuma. We passed a Domino's Pizza -- no seating. And plenty of convenience stores -- no sleeping. A google maps search turned up a day-onsen that was open until 1AM in Kami Yamada along my route. It seemed like a "real" onsen with outdoor bath, sauna, food service available, etc., for only 630 yen.  I arrived there around 1030PM. The attendant was friendly, but shrugged his shoulders when I asked about a place I could lay down for 30-60 minutes after my bath. And the food service was over. Oh well, I figured, I would try to find a place to lie down in the bathing area.

This is at least the 4th or 5th time I have tried a mid-ride onsen. It just does not work, at least not without a decent recovery sleep to follow. My body is in an extreme condition, and the onsen heat does not help since I know I need to get back on the bike soon after. I tried lying down on a bench outside next to the outdoor bath. Too cold after a few minutes, even with a large rented bath towel. I tried sleeping in one bath. Too hot and I could feel myself dehydrating.  Eventually, I gave up and went to the entry area, got some drinks from the vending machine (coffee/milk etc.) and put my head down on a table, sitting in a chair. I left by 1230AM, having had no real sleep, and feeling nearly as tired as before.

Our route went up the South side of the Chikuma River from Ueda toward Komoro. This was a low traffic road, a nice choice in the day. But at night, the repeated up/down was a killer, blocking me from getting momentum and draining my remaining strength. I rested inside the cover of a walkway underpass for 10 minutes, then pressed on. I stopped at a vending machine for an energy drink, nearly out of water -- no services on a long stretch of this road. Two other riders passed me and I tried to hop on with them, riding together or at least with them in sight all the way to where we joined the Route 18 Bypass in Komoro. The hills felt as if they were at a 15% grade. In fact, they were more like 7%.

Then, finally, as the first light cut the pitch darkness, I was up on top, and going through Karuizawa again, this time on the "bypass". It was a fast road, and on the stretch from 1002 meters elevation to the low point, around 935 meters, I zoomed. It was still long before 5AM, and the next checkpoint was just down the hill and a bit of a way down the valley, and did not close until 6:56AM.
The route taken ... most of it, at least.

Panic #1

I arrived at the checkpoint, raced in, and got my receipt. I practically screamed at the clerk. "I'll take this. Just quickly get me the receipt! Quickly! Here's the cash! No bag needed! Just the receipt. Quick, ring it up. Issue the receipt first! Issue the receipt fast!" The receipt showed ... 6:56AM. Another few seconds and I would have been out of time.

What happened?

First, the Route 18 Bypass leaving Karuizawa to the east does not go out via Usui Pass. Instead, it goes over an adjacent mountain. Add an extra 100+ meters of climbing. Even at 5AM, I did not like the bypass road. It is a wide road with sweeping curves, and the only traffic on it at that hour was going FAST. Big trucks, small cars, it did not matter. I was not steady, and they were zooming.  Finally, at least I was at the top and onto the descent.

Within a few minutes, I started to fall asleep on the bike. I pulled over and rest my head on the handlebars, tried again. Started to doze off and pulled over. A third time. This time I found a nice strip of protected concrete behind the guard rail and lay down for 5 minutes. Surely now I would be revived enough, if I just crept down the hill feathering my brakes. Wrong.

I awoke suddenly, just as my left side of the handlebars hit the high concrete retaining wall next to the road. The bike and I went tumbling onto the surface of the road. Ouch!  I waited 5 or 10 seconds, then started to try and move. Some sharp pains, but nothing obviously broken, at least. My right toe ached, my right knee, left elbow. The brifters on my bike were jammed toward the center, bar tape torn on one side, handlebar bag and contents strewn over the roadway, seat and seat post twisted at a 15 degree angle.  And the DI2 rear derailleur was no longer shifting.

But, but ... no broken bones. And after 5 or 10 minutes of work, the bike was rideable and almost as good as new. No scratches on the frame I could see. Only the loose left brifter could not be fully fixed -- I could not easily tighten it with the wrench I had brought, but the rear derailleur was working (after I replugged a wire), and everything else was okay, and the brifter was usable.

In the end, it took me over 40 minutes to get down a hill that I would typically do in 20 minutes or so.

How far was it to the checkpoint again? Let's see. It seems as if the address is "Takasaki" and not "Annaka"!!!  It looks like it is ANOTHER 20 KILOMETERS from the BOTTOM of the hill! That is cutting it VERY close. Now THAT woke me up!

I gave it my all.

As I passed the signs for Central Annaka and Annaka Station, I figured I had at least 5 minutes' to spare and still arrive within time. My GPS was acting up, so I tried to adhere to the cue sheet to find the PC. First, I remember being told at the briefing that we needed to stay in the MIDDLE of 3 lanes to avoid a left turn near here. I moved to the left edge of the middle lane. Immediately, a horn behind honked loudly and repeatedly at me!  I sheepishly pulled over. Where was our turn? And why did we leave Route 18 Bypass? I went down an exit from an overpass (was that the left turn to avoid? or the correct one?  And I re-entered the main road again. Eventually I got out my iPhone and uploaded the Ridewith GPS file. I could finally see the route, and retraced to get off the main road and go around. But I was still a few kms from the checkpoint!  It would be VERY close. Every red light was a risk of being late. I sprinted, or as close as possible, the last kilomter.

My watch said 6:56 as I pulled into the PC and ran into the store. The receipt also said 6:56. Whew.

The Rain

The rest of the ride - still another 145 kms - was flat. Easy, right. Just roll it home and maintain an average speed around 20kph. Well, yes, and no.

First, my GPS device's "route" function was haywire. It was rebooting itself repeatedly. And though I had the cue sheet, I had not bothered to print a map ... my iphone and GPS versions had worked so well in recent rides. I made it fine to the 540km PC, with plenty of time to spare.

Panic #2

I realized that the time limits for the PCs were set for a 600km event, but our finish point was actually 609 kms. So we had an extra 9kms tacked on to the final leg. Then the rains hit. Gradually getting heavier and heavier, reaching downpour level when I was just southwest of Tsukuba. My GPS device was for all practical purposes useless, my iphone screen would not work when wet (and the battery was down at a few percent, and my cue sheet was telling me about roads I could no longer find, some unmarked).  I knew I was off course, and had taken a long route to get back on course, ... but to no avail. Was I going East? North? Had the road turned back West? I felt as if I could spend the rest of the day riding in circles around Tsukuba. Finally, I found a convenience store where I could dry my phone, look at a map, and figure it out. As it turned out, I was only 6-7 kms from the finish (as the crow flies), and if I could just get back to the route, I had enough time.
At the finish - Flash Cycle near Tsuchiura Station
I made it to the finish with 15 minutes to spare ... out of 40 hours. And there were at least 5 other riders behind me.  An easy 600km, that was not so easy. With this, I have completed my "super randonneur series" of 200, 300, 400 and 600km events, so should qualify to ride the Central California Coast randonée (1000km version) in late August.
The downpour as my train leaves Tsuchiura Station
Tsuchiura Station's cyclist-themed waiting room, on the platform
Tsuchiura is trying hard to attract cyclist visitors. At the station, there was a room where we could assemble/disassemble bikes, use lockers, change clothes, wash grime off things, even showers are available. Plus several bike shops at or near by, rental cycles, etc. etc. Good for the day-tripper. (Lockers not accessible at night, according to the signage I saw).




01 May 2018

North Kanto 400km - Utsunomiya Cycle Picnic?!

Bike (and rider) rest at dawn on Monday 4/30, somewhere on local Rte 75 between Sano and Kanuma
Utsunomiya's audax group teamed masterfully with local authorities to schedule a 400km brevet with start and finish at a recreational facility just Northwest of Utsunomiya city--known to many as the capital of Tochigi Prefecture and the home to the greatest gyoza in Japan (though fans of Hamamatsu in Shizuoka may contest the latter designation).

Hirose-san reads the very helpful, detailed, relevant briefing for this ride. Impressivbe.

The finish was Monday morning (Showa Day holiday), concurrent with a major "cycle picnic" that offered rides of 15, 65, 75, 100 ... and 400 kilometers. That was us, the 400 km group.

This concurrent event had several benefits. For the normal brevet fee (JPY1200 or around US$11), we received free "Saitama style" reflective vests (see below), frame badges, and a ticket to the very nice onsen facilities at the adjacent "Romantic Village" Michi-no-Eki. We also had free overnight parking, with the facility conveniently located close to the Utsunomiya exit from the Tohoku Expressway, so only an hour and 40 minutes' drive from my home in central Tokyo. And, I even got to witness the mayor of Utsunomiya, as he came up and greeted, and exchanged business cards with, Hirose-san, the leader of Utsunomiya Audax, as I checked in at the goal. (Sorry, no photo. I would have liked one with the youngish (40-something) mayor in dark suit, white shirt, slicked back black hair, tie clasp, etc., very out of place among the spandex clad crowd, and Hirose-san, the randonneur group's leader, in his jeans and cycling jersey ... somehow Hirose-san obviously was the much classier of the two). With Utsunomiya's role hosting the Japan Cup pro cycling race each autumn, maybe it is making a push to be something special in the cycling world in Japan. (Now, if only they would make some bicycle friendly routes THROUGH the city, so we don't always need to go AROUND it.) But, of course, this was all just the icing on the cake.
But wait, there's more! Free reflective vest!
Optional frame badge in red, white and blue

Non-brevet riders at one of many booths of the Sunday morning "Cycle Picnic" at the Goal
We were there for the ride itself! And when I parked and unloaded my bike at 615AM Sunday morning, there were no families going to the concert at the michi-no-eki, no sponsors in tents at the cycle picnic, and no short distance riders, couples or children on bikes. Instead, it was just us hard men (and women) who chose to ride a 400km event on a nice Sunday in late April.

Then  again, course was not so hard, with around 1100 meters of climbing on each half. Why mention the halves? The riders were split into two groups. One started with the East half from 7AM, the other started with the West half from 8AM. I took the East version. We passed each other somewhere around Ashikaga, just over 200km for us, just under 200km for them. I pulled off at around 225-230kms for a quick pasta at a Family Mart Cafe in western Ashikaga one block from the course -- a nice quiet store with cafe seating -- where the course which followed a levy along the Watarase river. As I finished up another rider pulled in. He was going the opposite direction, having started an hour later, and had gone just 200kms. We shared information before I headed out.
Park in Mito, Ibaraki, with center of the city visible across the lake. Azaleas everywhere this time of year.

Decorated trucks at O-Arai beach -- room for another row, perhaps, but not for the thousand or more lined up trying to enter.
The first 93kms was fast, to Mito and out to O-arai and the coastline.  To this point, I was with some faster riders, like Kamano-san. After leaving the checkpoint, we quickly entered a LONG traffic jam along the coast. As I continued through the line of stopped traffic, gradually the percentage of trucks got higher and higher, until the line was ALL trucks. They were headed toward O-arai No 2 (Dai Ni) Sunshine Beach. The trucks were all decorated with special paint jobs, accessories like the gaudiest of samurai helmets. I saw more than one pedestrian in a black t-shirt with the rising sun flag of wartime Japanese military usage. I thought, this is either a huge assembly of truck maniacs who are being judged for best paint job and decoration, or some kind of strange right-wing rally. In any event, after passing the beach entrance we continued SW along local Route 16 ... and opposite a 5 km line of trucks waiting in the opposite direction. They must have had a VERY long wait, since there was no obvious room on the beach's parking lot for any more of them.
More trucks
Anyway, as we headed south then west, the going got tough. The wind had picked up and was from the SW, and it was getting hot. A group of 3 riders zoomed past and I could not "hop on the back" even to keep pace. I slogged and slogged this second quarter of the ride. It was more of the same, typical Japanese "inaka" settings of towns, suburbs, farms, rice fields, some rolling hills and even a few forests. Then more of the same. Finally, there was a climb over the north shoulder of Mt. Tsukuba (it seemed very steep, but that might have just been my fatigue, or my lack of a real "climbing gear" on the bike I was using, or my poor physical condition compared with some prior years). The brakepads on my carbon rims squacked on the descent (I changed the front pads before the next climb), and then into a checkpoint at 152.5 kms.

The next leg was easier, at least no big climb, and the wind from our side, not front. There was even a tailwind as we rode a very nice path along the levy-top next to the Watarasegawa through Koga city and to the 200 km checkpoint. One rider came up and said hello and "hisashiburi" at the 200km checkpoint, He was tall, and I remember him from past rides ... but could not (and cannot) pull out his name from my memory. I need an Audax "facebook" with names next to photos -- and the photos need to show people with and without helmets/sunglasses. Otherwise, I am still hopeless with most riders' names, even people I see at these events repeatedly over the years. I miss Inagaki-san, I cannot help but think. We all do, those who were lucky enough to ride with him.
The route was first East, clockwise, then a counterclockwise western tail, misshapen figure eight
I reached the 200km point around 540PM, 10 hours and 35 minutes after my start. Half way, and now cooler. From here, we again rode adjacent to a mammoth traffic jam as we passed through Sano-shi and entered Ashikaga. But at least parts of Ashikaga were nice, and it was now cool and dark and very comfortable to ride. After my stop at the Family Mart Cafe, the route hugged the hills just north of Kiryu, and eventually climbed to around 500 meters elevation after crossing from Kiryu into Maebashi. After the disaster of the Tsukuba climb in the afternoon, I had feared this stretch. But it was cool, and dark, and the road was smooth, and the lights of Maebashi and Takasaki stretched out to the South in the valley below, and it was just delightful. I want to take this road again next time I need to cover this ground. The climb is well worth it, to get out of the congestion and sprawl. At one point, I stopped for a rest and a bite from my rucksack, and no one passed. Was I on the right course? ... Well, the GPS said so, and sure enough, when I got to the checkpoint 7-11, there were at least 6-7 riders there, and many more pulled in before I left.  I was on track, not suffering any obvious problems, and had climbed the last big hill. So even though I was only 270 kms into a 400 km event, I felt sure I would finish. The "bonk" of the afternoon heat, wind and climb, the legs that could barely turn over, were forgotten. Randonesia usually sets in awhile after the event, but this time it seemed to hit even during the ride, a few hours after the bonk.

Sure enough, the ride through Maebashi and Takasaki to the South was easy, and then the route continued flat to the East through until dawn, as I re-entered Tochigi and finally climbed a small rise parallel to the Tohoku Expressway. I saw another rider stopped, resting and taking a photo, and pulled over beside him. He complained that he was sleepy, and was delighted to have someone set a pace for him. We had talked at a few checkpoints ... though I never got his name. I actually pulled him the next 5-10kms, the only real "domestique" duties for me this ride. We caught a woman rider, and I drafted off of her for a few kilometers until our small three-person "train" fell apart as first the rider fell away off my back, then eventually I pulled into a convenience store for one last rest. After a snack and a 10-minute nap seated on a bench and wedged against a wall just out of the rising sun's light, I was ready to bring it home.
Sunrise in Southern Tochigi on local Rte 75
The last stretch included some short uphills, and then on the home stretch we were suddenly among riders from the "cycle picnic". But it was a new day, and I felt inspired to push home quickly. In the end, my time (just over 24 hours) was not at all inspired, but at least the last stretch felt that way!
At "Michi-no-eki Romantic Mura" on Sunday morning, après onsen
All in all, it was a very good training ride, in nice country and beautiful weather, in not-unreasonable traffic, with good colleagues and a few perks. And after a long afternoon and then night of sleep, I feel refreshed and rested.  ... and ready to do it again, soon.

15 April 2018

Spring is Sprung! 4/14 AJ Tamagawa 300km Brevet

In Gunma on Route 299, between Kanna Town and Ueno-mura
I was really looking forward to yesterday's April 14 brevet. This type of event, after all, was the reason I joined the AJ Tamagawa chapter of Audax Japan.
-- A start and finish about a 35-minute spin from my home.
-- That would take me on familiar, but beautiful roads I do not see often enough.
-- That gets out of Tokyo before the traffic, and returns after.
-- With a tough, rewarding first half ... and an easier, forgiving second half.
-- In a beautiful season for this part of the world (and, as it turned out, with ideal cool, cloudy but never cold cycling weather -- the kind of weather in which world records are set (by those in the shape to do so).
I was not disappointed!!!
At the start area at Futako Tamagawa ... last minute repairs to a randonneuring bike?
Or just one of many abandoned mama-chari?
Our route -- clockwise, out through the mountains, back on the plains
We started a few minutes after 6AM. (I was in the second wave of starters, officially slated for 6:10AM, in fact a bit earlier). Another group would start at 7AM. 90 people had signed up, but there were 25 DNS's, according to the staff. I guess the forecast for afternoon and evening rain scared people away?
In any event, I was the first rider to go through "bike check" for the second wave, and was off. Within 45 minutes, I passed a few of the riders who had left 10 minutes earlier. Around Tachikawa, our route left the river and switched to some major roads -- roads Jerome likes but I usually try to avoid. Fortunately, traffic was still light.
On Nariki Kaido. Flowers and flowering trees.
At Higashi Oume Station, we entered the Nariki Kaido, the cyclists' most well-known route into Chichibu. After several short climbs and 3 tunnels, I was in Naguri and slowly ascending the valley that ends at the base of Yamabushi Pass -- all very well-known, rewarding territory for a road cyclist day trip from Tokyo. Then, a quick water stop at the "holy fountain" (our name for the shrine 1-2 kms from the base of Yamabushi).
The "holy fountain" -- delicious water, and free
Looking toward Yamabushi from the holy fountain - no cars even at 830AM.
Looking back from the holy fountain ... an Audax rider in the distance - no cars
Here, a few riders passed me, ... and a couple more on the climb. I am overweight and not as strong as in some years. I really needed this event for training, and I was not surprised that I struggled a bit on the climbs. Then again, I made it, and what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. If I can get in some decent GW rides in series, keep swimming on weekdays, and then make it through the Chubu Audax 400 next month ... I just may be back in shape.
Hairpin turn - steepest section on the Yamabushi climb.
Spectacular new buds and light green leaves on the adjacent slope, even on a cloudy morning.
Anyway, from the top of Yamabushi I was down and at the river in Chichibu in no time, it seemed. From 625m elev. to 190m ... the low point between Yamabushi and 800m Elev Shigasaka Pass.
The Arakawa, early on its journey from mountains to Tokyo Bay.
I remember the first time I made it to Chichibu by bicycle, back in the Positivo Espresso heyday. It was a hot day, and the town seemed dusty and downtrodden. Not yesterday! The roads have been repaved (including a formerly nasty, bumpy, even dangerous stretch of Route 299 coming into town from the East), pedestrian areas widened, historical buildings fixed up, and even some convenience stores have bike racks (and inside seating). The town looks, well, worth stopping over sometime to spend an afternoon and night, and getting to know a bit instead of just riding through. Of course, it still has the lovely hilltop "Muse" park across the river, and it still is a gateway to many mountains and rivers.
Route 299 between Ogano and Shigasaka Pass - VERY light traffic.
An example of the typical farmer's garden on this road.
And we saw lots and lots of small solar farms, even more, and larger, later on around Tomioka and Fujioka.
After Chichibu, we stayed on Route 299. Of course, the only thing that remains the same about the road at that point is its Route number. Once past Ogano ... just a few kilometers west of Chichibu city, the traffic volume drops to near zero. The climb up Shigasaka Pass was tough, for tired legs and an overweight body, but beautiful.
From the Shigasaka Climb
From the Shigasaka top
Entering Gunma, finally
Then it was down the hill to Kanna, past the dinosaur exhibits, and onto the grinding 0, 1, 2% uphill to the west toward Uenomura. This area is known as the site (up on one of the mountains) of the crash of a JAL 747 jumbo in 1985. But I know it for its lovely, peaceful nature. My favorite stop is the "Kawa no Eki" (a play on the typical "Michi no Eki") at the west end of the town, where one can sit and watch the river from an amphi theater, bamboo on the opposite bank. I bought some "tako yaki" to refuel a bit for the climb to the entrance of Yu-no-Sawa (湯の沢) Tunnel, at 710meters elevation.
On the short (3km) climb to the entrance to the 3km+ tunnel from Uenomura to Nanmoku/Shimonita
Once in the tunnel, the grade turned into a descent, losing at least 50-75 meters elevation in the 3km tunnel. The descent continued after the north exit, and it was a quick descent to Nanmoku and the next checkpoint at a beautiful "michi no eki".
Beautiful "Michi No Eki Oasis Nanmoku "with delicious breads for sale
And lots of vegetables too ... alas no room to carry them home by bicycle
I bought some delicious dark bread, filled with nuts and other goodies, weighty. I gave away part of it, ate part of it, and took the rest with me (where a few bites at a time helped keep me fueled the remainder of the ride.

By the time I left the Nanmoku checkpoint, it was almost 3PM. I was only 1 hour ahead of the cut off for that point, shockingly slow, with half the distance left! If I was done with the climbing, the weather forecast for the rest of the ride had looked grim. We were about to head east along Route 254, with a stiff headwind predicted. Then sometime around 5 to 7 PM, the rains were supposed to it.

In fact, over the next stretch the winds were light to non-existent so I could make good time. And the rain held off to the finish. If the scenery was boring after dark, at least I was riding many roads I knew reasonably well, or at least could recall having ridden sometime in the past, if not in a few years. That really helped in the dark. By the time we headed downriver from Oume again, the winds had picked up into a swirling gust. At first, this was a crosswind. But then, it became mostly a tailwind and pushed me the last 20-25 kms home. This video from near Sekidobashi (where I stopped for the last of the bread) gives some idea, though it was actually taken during a "lull" in the gusts:
As I munched on my bread, I saw two riders zoom by. They were gone long before I mounted up, but I thought (maybe, just maybe, I can catch them). Sure enough I could finally see them and made it through the same traffic light (barely) at Tamagawaharabashi, and was only 75-100 meters back passing the Keio Oval and as the road bends left. Then there is a right turn at a traffic signal.  They were stuck behind cars waiting at the light. I crossed the road, so that when the light turned green, I could use the crosswalk and immediately turn right. I did so and was off with a zoom. I had passed them without even figuring out who it was ... immediately, I thought, perhaps I should have been more social and joined them for the ride in? But with a tailwind, and my eye on the clock, trying to get to the goal within 17 hours, I felt not a moment to lose.

AJ Tamagawa had commandeered a room in small structure in Futako for the finish. It was not easy to find ... for a newby. Only one Audax PBP reflective vest hanging outside in the dim of a streetlight, and a couple bikes inside the fence, gave it away. Precious minutes lost finding it ... so a 17hr 02min finish -- plenty of time given the 20-hour cutoff, but not fast enough to do really long events (600, 1000, 1200) and get enough sleep/recovery during the event.

The check-in building was little more than a shed, but there was space for us to check in, plenty of light and warmth, and a place to sit and discuss the ride and get some small snacks and a cup of tea. I rode this event alone pretty much the entire way -- so I was glad to chat with some people I had passed, or who had passed me. Eventually the two riders I had passed came in ... and one was the tiny woman rider from Kansai who had zipped through the Isabella Byrd series last year, riding some with Jerome and me on the 600k leg. Sure enough, she had started at 7AM, so instead of finishing 5-10 minutes behind me, was actually 45-55 faster. Many of the others at the finish are familiar faces ... but none who I know well.

Jerome missed the event, returning from a business trip Saturday evening. So as I was eating a late lunch, I got an SMS from him:  he was 100kms into the ride and on Shigasaka!  As I write this, he is well over 200 kms and heading through Saitama toward Oume, and on a pace for a 14 hr ride.