22 August 2014

RIP -- Robin Williams

I am a little late with this, but wanted to at least mention the sadness I and many others felt upon learning the news last week that Robin Williams, cycling fanatic, comedic genius, off-and-on addict to various substances and sufferer of Parkinson's disease, had taken his own life.

There was a pretty good summary of his relationship with cycling in 2003 in a Bicycling Magazine profile, back before the Lance betrayal.  The article includes a list of some of his bikes, circa 2003.   Bicycling had another short remembrance, including a link to a 2013 Daily Show interview.  There were plenty of other notes in the press about his involvement with and love for the sport.

I liked best the report of why Williams said he loved cycling, in response to a question from WSJ reporter Jason Gay:  because riding bikes is "the closest you can get to flying."  Indeed.

18 August 2014

SR600 Nihon Alps First Attempt -- Flood and Heavy Rain Warnings ... not just Warnings

I left Tokyo as planned on Friday in time to catch an 8PM train from Shinjuku to Kobuchizawa.  The weather forecast had shifted a bit, so it seemed there would probably be heavy rain on Saturday at least in Gifu Prefecture, and it would be cloudy and a bit cooler than feared.  I welcomed the thought of cloud cover -- no way I could complete this ride in straight-on summer heat.  And I added clip-on SKS raceblade fenders to my gear.

True the forecast looked both hotter and wetter than I would like to do this ride, but it is either this weekend or maybe late October.  No other chances this year for an SR600.
Start at Kobuchizawa Station -- proof of my 10:30PM departure. 
When I arrived at Kobuchizawa Station, in Yamanashi, the ground and roads were wet.  Indeed, I had seen the rain shower from the train a few minutes before.  As many people waited for taxi cabs at the station, we were greeted by hundreds, perhaps thousands.  No, not visitors to the summer festival whose lanterns were still visible, but mosquitoes.  I quickly applied some bug spray -- and left them behind at the area around the station.  I was not followed.
The quiet road awaits
I carefully descended down, down and down from the Station to Route 20.  Then onto the familiar climb several hundred meters elevation up Route 20 to Fujimi Pass, and the descent down the Nagano (north side) to Chino.  The traffic was heavy for evening, especially on the other side of the road heading South.  There must have been an evening event in Suwa/Okaya or Chino to form such a line of cars after 11PM on a Friday night.
Chino 7-11. No distinguishing features.
I stocked up on water and food as planned in Chino at the 7-11 just before the base of Route 152.

Then it was up onto the climb to Tsuetsuki Pass.  Within 5 minutes, I was in another world.  Yes, the occasional car would pass, but otherwise it was completely dark, except for the distant lights of Chino down in the valley from the occasional viewpoint.  It was sticky and damp, but not actually raining, yet.  Less than 5 minutes into the climb, I heard an animal shriek very loudly on the hill just above me to the right.  What was that?  Not a beer, or deer.  What kind of bird?  Or perhaps monkey?  I think I have never heard anything so loud in the woods.  But whatever it was, it did not sound like any predator I could imagine, so I ignored it and continued the climb.  I see only one or two small animals crossing the road as I climb, too far away to identify.

Finally, the top of Tsuetuki, at 12:30AM, at least 450 meters above Chino.  Some rain on the pass, and very humid.  Then a gradual, 15km-plus descent to Takato.  I had been warned to be on the look-out for deer on Akiba Kaido at night, but did not see any on this stretch.
TsueTsuki Pass -- in the dark
From Takato, there is a flat/slightly up stretch, much of it along Lake Miwa (behind a dam), before the village of Ichinose and then the 500+ meter elevation climb to Bunkui Pass.

The real rain started on the climb to Bunkui Pass.  Despite my lightweight rain shell, I was quickly soaked through.  I would remain soaking wet much of the next two days.  But even at night, in the mountains, it was a warm, Japanese summer rain.  The net effect on someone like me, who carries plenty of body fat, is POSITIVE.  It cools me.  True, I need to be careful to avoid chafing in the hands, saddle or feet, and need somewhat grippy tires, but this I can prepare for.  Otherwise, rain is far better than riding in the Japanese summer heat, and rare that I actually feel cold, even if soaked through.

Finally, the top.  No cars at all after Ichinose -- and indeed, none on the road the next 50 kms or more, until well after I rejoined Route 152 south of Shirabiso!  The views on this road are spectacular, a river off to the left, so it is a shame to ride it in the dark, or the rain/clouds, or in my case, both.  I could see one or two lights from campsites somewhere off to the left, far from the road, but little else.
Bunkui Pass Elev 1424 meters - a "power spot" of some kind -- the real rain has started
It is a long, gradual and relatively straight descent down the south side of Bunkui, but a much narrower road than after Tsuetsuki, and totally dark.  The rain continues.  I go slower than normal.  And lucky I do so, as two big deer with white rear-ends materialize in front of me in my headlamp beam as I get near the bottom of this hill.   They scatter quickly heading down the road and then, past the end of the guardrail, jumping off to the left hand side. Where am I now?  At the "鹿塩郵便局".  Kashio--literally "deer salt" post office.  Then I pass the "大鹿町役場".  O-shika -- literally "big deer" town hall.  No wonder there are deer around!  This makes much more sense than the deer in the park in Nara.

Now starts the longest uphill I will face until Norikura.  From O-shika, I climb the very narrow (and wet) Route 152 up to Jizo Pass, Elevation 1314 meters.  Of course, this "pass" is just a bend in the road and the climb continues.
Not really a pass, just a turn in the road on the long climb.
Around 1500 meters elevation I must take the left fork in the road and climb up to Shirabiso Pass (Elev 1833).  After a couple of rests on this climb, I arrive at 630AM.  The view of the Minami Alps from here is spectacular and so I had planned to arrive shortly after first light.

Well, the view is not much today.  Just clouds.
Spectacular vie.  6:30AM.
Then I must attack a 700 meter stretch of road along the ridge top, to climb 80 meters up (yes, it is steep!) to the Shirabiso Highland hotel.  I walk up the hill, too steep for more climbing on the bike, and go to the hotel.  Things are stirring inside.  But the restaurant is not open.  The "front" confirms -- no food except for guests.  One motorcyclist is packing up at the side where I have left my bicycle.  He is a bit surprised to see me.  "Anata genki desu ne!"  Yes, I must be "genki" to have climbed up this mountain at this hour.  And come to think of it, I have not seen any cyclists since before Chino.  But instead of "genki" I just feel exhausted.  I eat my 4th mini-sandwich packed from home, and 2nd onigiri purchased in Chino.  Then a loudspeaker blasts.  I jump.  The announcement--for hotel guests--breakfast is now prepared and available in the dining room!  Rise and shine!  I just love these loudspeakers in the villages ... and, it would seem, in the hotels.  What a great way to get in tune with nature on the crest of a spectacular ridge.

Now for the descent -- I should get 30 minutes or more of rest on the bicycle as I head down the forest road to the South and eventually get back onto Route 152, 1000 meters below me.

No rest.  The descent is wet, technical, narrow and very steep.  I passed at least 15 cars parked at Shirabiso Highland, and other 10-15 at a campsite just along the ridge, so I know that cars do come up and down this road.  Plus the motorcycle is ahead of me on the descent, at least a few minutes.  I am on the brakes almost the entire time, worried whether I can stop quickly enough if I should happen upon a car or hazard.  I am out of the saddle with my arms fully extended and butt off the back of the bike to avoid toppling over headfirst on the steeper bits of downhill.  I rest halfway down at a viewpoint, finally able to see across the valley.  There is a village here perched on the steep slope that reminds me of cliff hanging villages elsewhere in the world.  Amazing that it still exists here, not having plunged down the hill in an earthquake or (rain induced?) landslide.
View across the valley half way down Shirabiso.  From one of Shinshu's 100 sunset spots (just like Nozawa Onsen)!
My arms are aching by the time I reach the bottom.  The brakes do not work as well as I would hope in the wet.  I can almost feel the brake pads (and wheel rims) wearing away.  Usually on these long rides I pack a spare set of brake pads (required on some 1000-1200km Japan Audax events!).  But this time, with almost new pads, and never having actually used spares during an event, I forgo them.  By the bottom of the hill, the rear pads are getting noticeably thin and I regret my decision.

This would be a spectacular descent in good weather, but now it is just painful, and long.  And I am wondering -- if any SR600 requires 10,000 meters of climbing, couldn't they have cut out Shirabiso, taking the RIGHT fork at 1500 meters elevation, and saved us all a lot of pain and suffering?

Back on Route 152, I start to make better time.  Just as I approach the village of Wada, where there are signs advertising an onsen/michi no eki, I hear a "ping" from my rear wheel.  One drive side spoke broken.  I pull into the town, remove the broken spoke and adjust the wheel.  The onsen looks open, but no food available at this hour, so I continue on Route 152 and then 418.  Then a right turn onto Pref Route 1 past a reservoir, then up a short, brutally hot and seemingly steep hill past Anan Town Hall, PC 4.
Anan town hall -- almost at the top of a painfully hot, steep little climb
At the top of the hill I turn onto Route 151, which I will take north all the way into the outskirts of Iida.  Up and down and up and down.  Not so steep, yet very fast down sections, but just as many uphills.  I remember this section of the route from last years Kanagawa Audax Okitsu Classic 600 event.

... But the Okitsu 600 continued north up the valley beyond Iida. This time, I must make a left turn and go to "Central Iida".  I guess Iida must have been a castle town, since its "center" is not down by the river, but over 100 meters (elev) up the gradual slope to the west.  Finally Iida Station, my next PC.  It is hot, I am tired, I would like a restaurant. ... but nothing good and fast looks open this Obon weekend near the station, so I grab some Circle K pasta and lie down for 15 minutes on a bench.  Then onto the climb into the western hills.  The weather looks ominous.
Proof of passage -- Iida Station
Ominous weather.  That is the hill I will climb toward Iida Pass and Odaira Pass.
I am grateful for the cloud cover, even some light rain, on the climb.  Then the heavy stuff begins.  I finally get to Iida Pass, then a dip of 100-150 meters (my Garmin's altimeter seems no longer to work).  Then a second climb up to Odaira Pass (a/k/a Kiso Pass).  Just as I start into the dip, the heavens open up.  Wow.  Within seconds, the road is covered in water.  I am drenched (again).  My pace slows and I can barely see through the rain.  This is more like swimming than cycling.  At one point I pass some minshuku and a few homes or shacks.  At one old building, a man is standing on a covered porch watching the rain, and me.  My Garmin dies. Odd that the battery is out so quickly after I charged it a bit before Iida.
An overflowing stream on the climb to Odaira Pass.
I press on and eventually get to a nature park just before Odaira Pass.  My rear wheel is acting up again. Just over the pass I find a covered bench and table, as the rain lets up.  I check the wheels.  Another spoke is broken, also rear drive-side and only one live drive-side spoke remaining between the two broken ones.  ... But with a 36 spoke wheel, I still have 34, and with 5 or so minutes of adjustments, it is still rideable, unless I get one more break.  I really need to check the tension completely before a long ride like this, instead of assuming it is okay just because the wheel is straight.
No view here, ... but just to the east side there would be on a nice day.
The Garmin ... stays dead, at least through the end of the ride.  Back to wet cue sheets and maps protected by plastic.  The rain must have done it in -- I might as well have put the device in a tub of water.  Amazing that, with a simple very thin plastic bag, my iPhone makes it through the entire ride.  The Rixen Kaul ballistic nylon rear bag also does very well, with a simple rain cover and plastic bags for "must stay dry" items inside.

From Odaira Pass I descend again, down, down to the west.  I find my first "nice" weather yet this trip.  Cooler, drier, and even a tiny bit of blue sky visible ... for some minutes.   It is around 530PM.  I am more than 250 kms into the ride, and have done almost half the climbing, and I have used only 19 out of 54 hours.  For the first time I think I may just make it!
At Gero Station -- 745PM.
But more rain falls as I join Routes 256/257 for the last stretch to Gero.  I stop at a bakery/ice cream/coffee shop roadside for a snack, and end up getting a mini-dinner as the only customer.  The baker/shop master is quite happy to help and chat once I tell him a bit about my adventure.  I spill my coffee all over the table when, trying to open up the bread, the plastic wrap pulls away suddenly and my hand grazes the cup.  Lots of apologies from me and a fresh cup appears.  A mini pizza is heated up in the microwave, a bit soggy but hot.  The baker's wife emerges from the back of the house to witness the spectacle.  They are gracious and tell me to "go-yukkuri".  I cannot stay long, I say, and 5 minutes later am back on the bicycle, taking the last baked goods in my pocket and uttering more apologies about the earlier coffee spill and the pool of water that has gathered under me on the floor where I sat.  At least it is not a carpet.

Then only 3 "short" climbs, the highest to 697 meters elev., on the way to Gero.  By the time I get to Gero Station PC, it is 7:45PM.  2+ hours behind plan, but still plenty ahead of the clock to sleep a few hours here and then finish within the limit.  More rain.  An email from my wife about road closures and floods in Takayama, just north of here and my next stop.  Well, I may not make it, but if I get a few hours sleep I can try. I tell the innkeeper my plan, and he says I should just leave my key in the room if I head out after 11PM.  Reception will be closed/locked when I depart.

An email from my wife alerts me to WARNINGS.  There is flooding in Gifu.  Record rainfall in Takayama.  In one place almost 170mm of rain in an hour (almost 7 inches).  And much much more over a 24 or 48 hour period.  Roads closed.  Evacuation notices for several thousand residents already.  And the rain is going to continue at least through Sunday.

I am up at 1130PM on the road around 1145PM.  The SR600 Route take the less-traveled local route 88 out of Gero along the west side of the Hida River, instead of parallel Route 41 along the Eastern shore.  No convenience stores on this side.  So I will need to live on my energy bars for the next few hours.  As I continue, more hard rain.  Unseen rivers roaring down the valley in the dark on one or the other side of the road, or coming down a hill and under the road.  Then no more houses around, just a pitch dark road up the hill through a forest, with water everywhere.  Gifu Prefecture Route 98.

It seems to take forever, this climb.  I get off and rest, walk, ride again.  The energy bars are not doing it for me.  I should have gone off course and gotten at least a convenience store pasta.  Finally, around 215AM, I get to the shrine just before the top of Kuraiyama Pass.  Elev 1015 meters.  640 meters up from Gero.
At Kuraiyama Jinja Photo #6
At Kuraiyama Jinja Photo #7
Finally, Kuraiyama Jinja Photo #8.  Gate and shrine visible!
The rain is harder than I can imagine.  I fumble repeatedly to get a photo of my bike at the shrine gate for the "proof of passage".  If it is raining this hard, I cannot imagine I will make it to Takayama, or beyond to Norikura, at least not on schedule.  I wait under the eves of the shrine, in pitch blackness, for the rain to let up.  15 minutes.  30 minutes.  The rain continues.  The wind picks up so I am now getting wet from sideways blowing water.  I put on my arm covers and full fingered gloves, crouch in a fetal position.  An hour.  No improvement in the weather, so I decide the only thing is to head back down the hill to Gero.

The road looks different than when I came up.  It is still pitch dark, but now it is strewn with debris and running streams where a few hours earlier it had been reasonably clear.

Down in the valley, I pull over for one stop en route, in a sheltered, dry and enclosed bus stop, to warm up a bit during an intense squall, then I cross the river onto Route 41.
This enclosed, dry bus stop would have been a better place to hide out than the shrine up the hill!
Back at Gero, I go straight to my hotel room, unlocked still.  After a hot bath I sleep a few hours.

Getting home was an adventure.  When I mentioned in the morning that I should go to the station and check on trains, the hotel manager told me I could take a 10:26AM express train, and pointed me to a "home center" on the edge of town where I could get a bike cover or tape and XL garbage bags, to try to wrap my bicycle and board a train.
Hida River
Hida River -- I wish I had taken a video to show the incredible water volumes.
I go to the Home Center on the edge of town, return to the station, and get the bike wrapped, one wheel in each bag, another for fenders, and several for the frame.  I struggle with the packing tape I bought (next time: get electrical tape that is easy to tear).  But there is a growing crowd of holiday travelers with little suitcases as more and more vans, buses and taxis pull up from the onsen.  There appears one JR official with a microphone.  The 10:26AM express is cancelled.  Other trains also are cancelled.  There should be a 10:05AM local train -- 3 hours to Mino-Ota, then on to Nagoya ... but it is already 10:15AM and no local train in sight.  One woman on a mobile phone is telling her husband they will not get out at all today unless he drives to pick them up.  I see the crowd, and think of spending 3 hours or more standing on the local train line with all these folks, my wet plastic bags and clothes.  Not attractive.

So I unpack the bike and do what I should have done already, when I headed to the home center.  I head down Route 41 along the Hida River.  Only 110 kms from Gero Station to Nagoya Station.  Several massive downpours along the route.

As I just pass from Minokamo though into Aichi Prefecture -- Kani-shi and Inuyama-shi and beyond, Route 41 becomes a fast limited access highway.  Another prolonged thunderstorm hits, and quickly the road has 3-5 cms of water.  People are looking out their car windows toward me at stoplights, wondering who is crazy enough to be riding FAST on a bicycle in this weather.  I have not seen a road cyclist since just outside of Iida on Saturday.

Finally, Nagoya Station, time to dry and pack the bike to the extent practical, and a quick (1hr 40min) standing room trip to Shinagawa via Shinkansen.  By the end I rode 450 kms and climbed around 6000 meters ... in how much precipitation?  More than on the Hokkaido 1200!  Much more!

More news about the rain and flooding in Japanese (with video) at the linked site (unless and until the link goes dead).  Record setting amounts of rainfall.  Over 20,000 were evacuated from their homes in Takayama-shi.
Gifu Record Rainfall, Flooding and Water Damage -- from NNN via Yahoo Japan
Many, many road closures, including, for a time, Route 158 -- the road between Fukui to the west and Norikura/Nagano to the east of Takayama.  Nomugi Pass was closed.  Norikura on Sunday morning?  I am not sure.  But I did trade messages with Tanaka-san, our Fleche team leader, who was stuck in Takayama on Sunday and ended up not able to make it back to Gero by bicycle.  So I think I made the right decision when I turned around.
Page 1 of Gifu Road Closure List, August 17 1:30PM
UPDATE:  The Garmin Edge 800 seems to be drying out.  I could get it to start by resetting back to the factory settings.  Lost all my data, I fear.  I really would like to get another year or two of usage out of this GPS unit, since I am optimistic that eventually the iPhone/Android apps and dynamo hub-based chargers will be good enough (and the phones will have long enough battery life) to make the Garmin somewhat eclectic and buggy unit superfluous.

UPDATE:  The aero bars worked okay, except after 200 kms I really did miss the room along the bar tops covered by the armrests.  I removed the armrests and found this gave me the best of both worlds -- I can stretch out onto the mini aero bars, but still get full use of the bar tops.  This is potentially a winning set-up for brevets where aero bars are not prohibited and yet I do not need the front Ortlieb bag.  PBP does not allow aero bars.  Some local Audax rules also may not....

09 August 2014

Ready for SR600 Nihon Alps -- Next Weekend August 15 PM to August 18 AM

I will try the SR600 Nihon Alps (605 kms, 12500 meters of climbing, 54 hour time limit) starting from 10:30PM Friday night in Kobuchizawa, Yamanashi Prefecture.  An evening start is designed to get me almost 200 kms into the event before I get significant heat.  Heat is my main concern ... though cold on the high passes also could be serious.

A 10:30PM start allows me to sleep for 4 hours or so at Gero Onsen, then try to get to the Norikura Skyline entrance after the gate opens early (330AM?) Sunday morning.  Passage while the gate is closed would be grounds for disqualification under the Japan Audax rules.
1st leg highpoints: Tsuetsuki Pass, Bunkui Pass, Jizo Pass, then Shirabiso Highland elev1900m;
2nd leg highpoints:  Ohira Pass elev 1358, Kuraiyama Pass elev 1087, Norikura elev 2704m;
3rd leg highpoints:  Shiojiri Pass elev 1012, Kirigamine Fujimidai elev 1700,
Ogawara Pass elev 2093m, Nobeyama/Kiyosato elev 1295m.
This is a spectacular, but very hard, course.  My odds of completing the event are certainly less than 50-50.  But at least my bicycle is ready.
The Ti Travel Bike, rebuilt for speed and climbing.  
The Ti bike was giving rise to one too many "mechanicals" in its Retroshift/Shimano configuration. It did not inspire the confidence I would need for the SR600 -- just ride and forget about the bike, focus on the course, enjoy the view, and make good time with the minimum required effort.  
So I rebuilt it.  The Reynolds Ouzo Pro fork is back.  Yes, a bit less clearance for 700x25 tires and fenders, but I will use 700x23 for this ride, and I still managed to fit the mounts for the SKS Race Blade long fenders, and the bracket for my Busch+Mueller light, with plenty of clearance.
No Ortlieb bag on the front.  The Ortlieb bag will be back -- I love it for ease of opening/closing, the plastic map case, 100% waterproof (well, I have not thrown it in a swimming pool, but it takes anything short of that).  Instead, for this event I want the mini aero bars.  If I actually use them, they force me into a tuck position that seems to effortlessly increase my cruising speed by 2 kph.  The armrests are a bit of a constraint, but with 44cm wide bars leave enough room for me to have lots of other riding positions. 
I have just enough room for my gear, including spare tubes, tire, rain shell and sun covers for arms, tools, pump, energy bars, sunscreen and bug spray, etc., etc. in the Rixen Kaul back bag and 3rd bottle cage.  I may leave my Rinko bag somewhere near Kobuchizawa station, if I can find a good place to stash it, to free up a bit more space/weight -- final gear is subject to weather forecast.
Most important, now that I got my SRAM warranty replacement on the SRAM Red front and SRAM Rival wi fli rear derailleurs, I reinstalled the SRAM drivetrain.  The cable routing for the Shimano 7800/6600 shifters and the Retroshift was not ideal with the barrel adjusters at the bottom of the head tube on this frame.  SRAM (or 7900/9000/6700/6800 Shimano) works better, as the shifter cables go under the bar tape.  The SRAM Red 2012 front derailleur shifts like butter.  The rear double tap is precise, and I have 50/34 front and 11-32 rear gearing.  So I should be able to spin up just about any hill, even in heat and semi-exhausted condition.
I kept the Dura Ace 7800 brakes for now -- they are easier to adjust than the SRAM Red, I find.
I put on the mini-aero bar extenders to try and make better time on the few flat-ish sections.
The SRAM Red brake lever hoods are showing wear.  Lots of gel under the bar tape shows a bit.

04 August 2014

Positivo Espresso Nagano Training Weekend -- Climb Out of the Heat!

We planned to head to Nagano Prefecture in order to escape the ridiculous summer heat that has recently enveloped most of Japan.  On Saturday the morning paper showed a forecast of 34 degrees C for Tokyo.  Great to escape! .... but I was a bit shocked to see that the Nagano City Saturday forecast was for a high of an even higher 35 degrees C.

We rode to Tokyo Station in the morning weather.  It was not quite so scorching as midday, but hot enough to sap one's energy completely over a 40-minute ride.  In any event, we caught the 7:52AM Shinkansen to Nagano as planned.  At Nagano Station we transferred to a very local private train line to Suzaka, to skip the first 10-15 kms of urban sprawl riding.
On the local train from Nagano Station to Suzaka 
Juliane wields Jerome's new "bear bell" -- a Canada souvenir
Before long we were on the SR600 Fuji course heading North toward Nakano and Yudanaka.  The lower climb up to Yudanaka (elev. 600) was painfully hot.  We rested at Yudanaka Station, admiring the old station building, the foot soaking onsen (great ... in a different season of the year), and soaking ourselves by splashing cold faucet water over our heads.





Then it was onto the main climb to Shiga Kogen, nearly 1500 meters elevation!  After we joined Route 292, David J. suffered a mechanical (chain slipped inside large cog and jammed) on the bike I had lent him.  Juliane told me she would fix it and I should go on (I could use the head start).  I did so, and the others followed 20 minutes later, fixing the chain with help of a borrowed screwdriver from the resident closest to where we had stopped.  This assistance was typical of our visit -- everywhere people chatted and helped.

I need not have hurried, as I was climbing reasonably well on the Yamabushi.  David J., meanwhile, suffered under the weight of his backpack.  Jerome struggled in the heat -- until a mountain lake refresher charged him up.  Juliane "the gazelle" Prechtl zoomed up the hill at will.  Finally, clouds arrived, and slightly cooler temps.

We reconnected for lunch at the Restaurant Mont Moi.  Elev. 1460m, and cool weather now.  The restaurant was empty, about to close for lunch, but took pity on us hungry foreigner cyclists.  In this respect, I think we do much better traveling with Juliane and David J. than just Jerome and me.  Juliane gets a very positive reaction in the Japanese countryside.  Just the figure of a 180+cm blond lady on a road bicycle is something they do not see every day.  The lady who served our lunch (huge portions of curried rice and omelet rice) struck up a conversation.  When we told her we were headed for Nozawa Onsen she said we had best hurry.  Still a LONG way and after 3PM already!  She said she cycled.
At the high point in Shiga Kogen on Route 471 looking South
At the high point in Shiga Kogen on Route 471 looking North
Indeed, after the restaurant, we climbed another 200 meters on Route 471 to the pass (Elev. 1670) at another ski area.  There was a brass/wind ensemble (band?) playing outdoors in front of a hotel.  The hotel next door had a banner welcoming students of "Waseda Academy" cramming for their entrance exams.

Then almost 60 kilometers with no services, almost no traffic, just a beautiful ribbon of concrete surrounded by green, high up in a valley or along the crest of a ridge, with trees, streams and some impressive vistas.

Unfortunately, I cannot recommend this road to others.  I hope as few people use it in the future as did this weekend.  Indeed, please stay away!  Some reasons:

--  No services. For a large stretch you will be without convenience stores and other services of modern Japanese life.
--  You might get caught in a thunderstorm. We were!  Indeed, we went through a brief 10-minute storm, then a much, much longer one that continued over the last hour plus of our ride.
--  The road is under repair in several places.  We passed numerous "road closed" signs, but fortunately, on a Sunday in early August, the construction was shut down and road still passable, a small sticker on top of the "road closed" signs so noting.
--  At times the rain was so heavy it was as if we were riding up a river.  It was possible to see splits and bumps or holes in the road only from the line of eddies in the flowing water.
--  Cool.  Yes, we had managed to find a cool place to ride on one of the hottest days of the year.  But as you will learn if you read on, this could even mean hypothermia when heavy rain and then a descent is mixed in.
--  Yabu, Yabu, Yabu!  (my mistake, they are "Abu" (虻) ... Japanese biting flies.)  As Tom has noted before, he and Manfred suffered numerous Abu attacks around this area of Japan.  Abu bites can be like bee stings -- causing serious difficulties if one has an allergy.  We did not see any Abu or feel their sting, but IT COULD HAPPEN, so please stay away from these spectacular hills and leave them to us.

Finally, there was a long descent from around 1500 meters elevation down to Nozawa Onsen, most of it weaving through the ski areas, and we were at our destination.
Above Nozawa Onsen.  Ski jump in the distance to left.
In case you were not impressed with the last photo, this one points out that the view of Nozawa Onsen from here is one of Japan's 100 famous sunset spots.
I stopped and waited at the famous viewpoint above the onsen town, the rain now warmer since I was at a lower elevation.  Finally Jerome arrived.  We tried David and Juliane's telephones.  Only voicemail.  We waited.  They must have stopped.  Maybe a flat tire?  Or a quick duck into a dry shelter to warm up? (or was one of the ski area shops actually open?)  Anyway, we headed down the lower part of the descent and waited again at the upper entrance to the town.

More calls.  No answer.  Finally, here comes Juliane.  And there is David riding in the passenger seat of a tiny "K" truck, bicycle in the back.  Apparently they both got chilled from the wet descent, hands seized up, minds not fully functional -- we have all been there at least once -- and then David's front tire blew out (brake pad had worn down over the past few days riding and was rubbing against the 700x25 tire where it seats in the rim), and they had fortunately prevailed on a passing mountain man to give him a lift to the town.  Juliane had stuffed her jersey with some padding (rinko bag?) for a bit of warmth.

From heat exhaustion to hypothermia in a few short hours!

I also was a bit confused as I waited with Jerome at the entrance to town.  I took out the plastic bag with my wallet and handkerchief to dry my iPhone's glass front before dialing ... and left the bag sitting on a stone ledge at the edge of a building.  I later needed to ride back up from town after we checked into our inn to retrieve my wallet -- still dry and in the bag, and of course safe and untouched, this being the Japanese countryside.

Nozawa Onsen is a beautiful little hot spring town at the foot of a big ski area.  Very nice.  They have had some major events.  In 1994 they had a children's ski event.  Then in 1995 another major ski event.  Then in 1998 they were one of the host towns for the Nagano Olympics.  Then a gradual decline over 16 years in numbers of skiers and guests, and apparently no events so major that they merited commemorative posters in the inn.  So the townspeople said they are now trying to attract some business in summer as well as winter.

We have little doubt that better times are ahead, with the planned extension of the shinkansen beyond Nagano all the way to Kanazawa, and stops planned for Iiyama (where we saw the impressive shinkansen station building ready and waiting), Jyoetsu Myoko and, yes, even Itoigawa!
Source -- Wikipedia
Iiyama shinkansen station -- artist rendering ... but it does look pretty much like this
We stayed at a very nice onsen ryokan (traditional Japanese hot spring inn), but did not order meals -- unusual for this type of place -- since we would be arriving late.  And we no doubt confused the innkeepers as David, Juliane and Jerome all entered the bath just before the 730PM "changeover" of the men's and women's baths, delaying the changeover and leaving at least one couple sitting in the lounge waiting (with me and the onsen changeover crew).  Worse, Jerome and David brought beer to the bath area (they were the sole occupants, everyone else at dinner).

The innkeepers have a ready facility for any unpredictable foreigner who disturbs the "wa" (harmony) in such a manner, and made David welcome there.
We headed out into town for the evening and were happy to find an Italian restaurant (Kaze no Ie) with plenty of good food and drink.  The next morning, we went to the Sunday 6 to 730AM morning market, where we bought a wide array of foods and had a breakfast picnic at the public foot bath with scenic view of the town, within 50 meters of our inn.  The morning market was fun, with plenty of chance to chat with townspeople selling their wares.  We got coffee and smoothies from 3 nice ladies.  Then miso, breads, peaches and other items.

Again, at the foot bath area we chatted with a couple from Honjo, Saitama, who ended up giving us some of their onsen tamago, in exchange for which we offered peaches and cucumbers.  They were regular visitors, and amused to meet a United Nations cycling contingent.  They recommended another visit in November to get apples in Suzaka.  "The best apples in Japan."
Plenty to eat and drink, even as Jerome and Juliane show their best effort at the emaciated cyclist look
Breakfast of peaches, cucumber and miso, onsen eggs, etc., etc.
The public (villagers only!) bath just above our inn.


Honeymoon couple

The inn where we stayed.  Sumiyoshiya.
On Sunday we rode down to Iiyama, then parted ways.  Jerome and I headed down the HOT valley to HOT Nagano Station for the train home.  David and Juliane planned to go to the west up the next VERY HOT hill to explore a bit, then return to Nozawa Onsen for a second night.  At least no worries about hypothermia here!

All in all a successful training weekend, despite the heat, and the cold.

UPDATE:  David and Juliane spent a second night at the inn in Nozawa Onsen, then returned to Tokyo on Monday afternoon (via shinkansen).  On Tuesday they headed for Kagoshima (via shinkansen) then Yakushima (via high speed ferry).  They had planned to visit Graham and Shoko at their inn, then move on to Kyoto for the weekend, but the trip on Yakushima was extended as all ferry service (and even, for half a day, on-island electricity) was shut down by the passing of a massive typhoon.  At least they had time to ride the island -- circuit and climbs both -- and got to enjoy more of Shoko's spectacular cooking.  The ferry service restarted mid-morning Sunday, and they were on the first boat out to make it back to Tokyo on Sunday night and, of course, rode back to their Kaminoge lodgings after a food/drink stop in Yurakucho area.