06 September 2018

3CR 2018 Ride Report

Near the spot SE of Santa Maria California where Matthew O'Neill was killed by a vehicle on the 2014 3CR
Last week I joined and DNFed the California Central Coast Randonée or "3CR". Actually, I think the word "Mountain" should be added before "Randonée" since the ride does go through and over a number of mountains. Not high mountains, but many mountains.

The weather was better than for any long randonée I have ever joined. Each day I was in California, the morning was cool from a "marine layer" of clouds that eventually burned off for a sunny and warm, even hot but not humid, afternoon. But it was not an easy event, and I did not finish.

To begin with, I am just not in top cycling shape this year. Sure, I did the qualifiers of 200, 300, 400 and 600kms, but have not done regular weekend rides, far more sporadic than a few years ago. And the 400km and 600km qualifiers I chose were not such difficult events. Not easy, but not difficult. I barely finished the 600km within the time limit.

Also, the 3CR has a lot of climbing. I knew that with my extra weight this year (I am now over 100kgs!), it would be a challenge to climb quickly enough to keep up and get enough sleep at the overnight controls. The 1000km version of this event has around 9600 meters of elevation gain. Basically the climbing of an SR600 (over a longer distance), with no extra time allowed.

Third, I did not plan assiduously. I studied the route sheet and GPS carefully really only the morning of the start, while getting a bite to eat at Denny's with David Nakai, one of the California randonneurs. Micky Inagaki would have been very disappointed -- a rider who flies in from Japan and DNFs in part because of lack of careful planning!

But none of these disadvantages would have stopped me if I had just pushed forward. In the end, I just did not have the "must complete at all costs!" attitude needed to finish one of these long rides. Even in the best of conditions, trying to ride 1000kms in less than 75 hours a rider will typically hit some difficulty, somewhere, and need the right attitude to overcome it. In my case, when I hit serious difficulty, I was almost relieved that I had an excuse to stop. I knew that I could use an extra day to recover for the next part of my planned activities during this visit to the US. I needed it and, the way the schedule had worked, would not have had it had I ridden to the finish. I used the extra day to good effect, I hope. No rando-regret!

We started in the dark at 6AM from the Elks Club lodge in Santa Cruz, heading out of town through Capitola, then inland via Watsonville and eventually through the agricultural town of Aromas (which had streets closed for a pedestrian only event -- we needed to ride slowly as the streets were crowded with stalls and strolling locals).

We climbed over a lower set of hills, some of them steep in the cool of the morning, with very light traffic and some beautiful groves of trees. Nice country.
Low traffic volume, cool marine layer of clouds!
After one descent, we came out on another flat agricultural area. I had fallen behind a group on the climb, and caught and zoomed ahead on the descent (a benefit, one of the few, of being a heavier rider). I was enjoying a nice pace as the descent flattened out, and noticed a group had formed behind me.  I felt strong. ... then a rider on a Rivendell pulled up next to me. "Could you slow down, please! There is a gap as Jeff fell behind on the descent - he weighs so little!"  I almost blew up at the rider. I was just riding my ride, and these folks had zoomed past me on the climb.  I almost said "sure, and of course you will wait for me at the top of every climb, right? or better yet climb at my speed and pull me on the way up?" Instead, I said something about my being heavy and slow and this being my best chance to make good time, and pushed on.
At the first control -- a signpost with a code just off the roadway and out of the photo. No/Low traffic.
I soon got my first flat tire of the trip. It was a good chance to take a breather and eat an energy bar.
On the gradual climb from Tres Pinos to Pinnacles, looking back. Still very low traffic.

Eventually we came out on a long flat stretch of agricultural land (the sweet smell of strawberries as we passed strawberry fields ... forever), tacking into a light wind to east and south. After a stop at a mini-store/gasoline stand, I think in Tres Pinos, we entered a long stretch with a gradual climb up to Pinnacles national park where the organizers had set up a control that included water, snacks, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a bench / picnic table for sittin. Even though this was at or near the high point of this section of the ride, we had continuous up and down over the following 10+ kms, then a nice descent into King City.
Bad stretch of road SE of King City ... but note the solar PV to the right hand side.
After King City, we continued on one of the roughest and hottest patches of road to the East and into the next climb. After a first climb and descent, I finally made it into an area of shade where I could rest. Then it was relatively easy going -- a slight tailwind -- to the next PC, set up by the roadside. I fell into a cloth folding chair -- the kind one can buy at a home center in the US that has a cup holder on the right armrest. I was taking it easy, falling back in the pack, but Bill Bryant arrived in his SAG pickup and reported there were 7 riders behind me (out of the 45-50 total).  One of them, Alaor Porcher from Brazil, arrived. Also, as I was about to leave, Henrik Shroeder from Florida. The other five, including a recumbent, were much further back.
Finally, shade!
As I slowed on the climb up Indian Valley Road (tired, and with some stomach issues and "hot feet", stopping pretty regularly), first Alaor and then finally Henrik passed me. There were a couple crazy steep sections near the top, and I could see Henrik dismount and walk up one. I did the same, and we were trading places on the descent. The sunset was very nice, Venus was bright in the sky, eventually joined by a full panoply of stars, then the rise of a full moon. It was a nice ride into Paso Robles, and I pretty much ended riding with Henrik as a pair or at least close by. For whatever reason, I was always faster or slower, not quite the right match, for others on 3CR.
From the top of Indian Valley Road
We had decided to get real food at Paso Robles but it was already getting late (near 11PM?), and so nothing was open in the middle of town except for a bar having a VERY LOUD karaoke contest. I could not stand the jarring noise. I suggested we head for a Denny's (the closest equivalent to the Japanese "Gusto" restaurants). I found it on Google Maps ... but I led us South instead of North toward the wrong end of town, wasting a few precious minutes and some energy. We finally made it to Denny's, which was maybe 1.5-2.0 kms off course. The food was awful and service was slow. I wanted pasta, and the ONLY pasta item on their menu was spaghetti with meatballs. The spaghetti tasted like overcooked processed crap and the meatballs tasted gamey. I ate only 1 of 3 meatballs and maybe 1/2 of the pasta. Henrik ate even less of his order.

Now we had one more climb over the coastal mountains, on Route 46, then a descent and section along Route 1 to the overnight control at Morro Bay. My stomach problems were worse, and so as the climb got steeper I told Henrik to go ahead and pulled off. I had dry heaves, five or six times. At least this proved that I must have digested whatever I had eaten, and I felt much better afterward. It was dense fog and cold near the top, adding time to hunt for the special sign whose code I would write down to prove my passage. I had not brought any really warm clothes, just a very light and thin "water resistant" wind/rain shell, and my lighest pair of arm warmers. Nothing for the legs, shoes, head or hands. I feared I would get very cold on the descent ... but within a kilometer or two I was below the fog, and it was warm enough. Perfect weather, actually. Near the bottom of the hill I passed a rider seated, resting off the road, facing away. I guess it was Alaor. In any event, I made good time to the checkpoint, around 3AM, and Henrik and Alaor arrived a few minutes after me. 370kms, including the Paso Robles detour.

After a very short but deep sleep, day 2 started at around 620AM, just before the control's "closing" time. Many riders who had arrived earlier and gotten a bit more sleep were leaving the control after 5AM. I made it to the first control in Pismo Beach an hour ahead of the closing time. I hoped to make up even more time on the next stretch to Santa Maria, except it looked as if we had LESS time to go MORE distance. And there were climbs on the first half of the segment, followed by heavy agricultural traffic on the second part. This area was not pleasant to look at. Rather it was industrial, heavy agriculture. And there was a lot of crap on the road shoulders. Finally, I figured out that there reason we had LESS time for MORE distance was that on all the info from the organizers (brevet card, list of controls, list of services), the segment was shown as 49.9 kms, whereas on the cue sheet Santa Maria was shown as 43 kms from the prior control. 49.9 kms was just a turn off a road in the middle of nowhere.

Going into Santa Maria, I was still riding with (or trading places with) Alaor and Henrik, and we caught the randonneur who had requested that I slowdown the prior day and his riding partner Jeff -- both on Rivendells. We were in a line going through the city of Santa Maria on crappy road shoulders as I hit a rock that I had not seen because of the two Rivendells ahead. My rear tire immediately flatted and I pulled off. They went ahead without asking.

It was slow going east and south of Santa Maria. There was a wind, and relatively heavy trafffic, and in many places not much of a shoulder.  The Rivendells passed me -- they had stopped for food in Santa Maria whereas I just got a snickers and some water for my receipt proving passage. Instead, I stopped at a general store/cafe in the hamlet of Garey, California. It was a delightful stop with good, fresh food, two women working there who might have been mother and daughter, and locals coming in one-by-one for their made-to-order lunch sandwiches.
Local cattle ranch "brands" in Garey California

Delightful sandwiches, local customers
Finally the road (Foxen Canyon Road) started to climb, a long climb up a valley between two rows of hills, very steep at the top, then descent into Solvang, with another almost 100m steep climb over a bump in the middle. As soon as we were off the valley floor, a vineyard with nice gate, signage, tasting room. There were more, and as Solvang approached they got more dense. It looked like a nice place to come back and stay in a nice resort and

As I started to look for the Solvang control ... I flatted again. This time it was a sharp burr, like a "goathead" but smaller than the ones I had seen in Eastern Washington before. Only one more spare tube in the daily kit.
On the way to Solvang, Foxen Canyon Road

Far Above Solvang
As seen in the movie "Sideways"!  The Blackjack vineyards.
After a nice rest at a burrito place (I ate half a HUGE burrito and took the rest for later snacks), I started the climb back over Foxen Canyon. Henrik and Alaor went ahead, I could not keep up, and i was alone. I needed a cat nap ... but the entire section I could not find anyplace to rest off of the roadway that looked comfortable. I eventually lay down on a driveway outside a closed gate of a vineyard, but the lack of any parks, benches, or other public infrastructure was notable. Private property only.

On the way back to Santa Maria, I passed the spot where Matthew O'Neill was struck by a truck pulling a horse trailer in 2014. There were some forlorn flowers planted in the dusty soil just off the shoulder at one point -- I think that must have been it. It was a flat, straight stretch of road. The shoulder was not rideable, and the sun was in my eyes and those of the drivers, so I was a bit nervous and di not feel safe until I made it to a turn that pointed more to the north ... into the wind.

I finally made it into Santa Maria again ... and immediately flatted on the crap in the roadway. My last spare tube gone. These shoulders ... you might be okay if you ride 10 or 20 or even 30 kms. But ride 100 or 200 or 1000kms, and you will get flats, lots of flats. I will not do this kind of ride again without some serious puncture resistant tires, even if they are less comfortable.

After replacing the tube ... I was getting slower and slower at it ... I continued until I reached a levy along a dry river that went under Route 101. The instructions were for me to go under Route 101, then along a path that paralled the highway. I went under the highway and tried to find the path. My GPS route failed me and the cue sheet was not very specific ... and i wandered all the way across the dry river ... a path partly rideable hard packed dirt/gravel and partly sand.

In the end, I finally found some locals walking their dogs in the dark along the levy who pointed me the right way.

While I had been hunting around in the dark, Henrik and Alaor had eaten dinner. They caught me at a stoplight, and we rode through Arroyo Grande together in the dark. I stopped at a "deli" that had nothing but snacks at night, then continued to along Canyon Creek Road. I missed the checkpoint sign and had to double back 2kms (and a few big up and down dips). As I approached San Luis Obispo from the south, I was hailed by Henrik. Alaor was sleeping in front of another winery gate, and he was also ready to lie down. I joined them and said I would rest 10 minutes. We needed to press on. And if Alaor slept any longer, he would not be able to wake up easily. Just after I lay down, I heard a rumble. It grew louder and louder. Like nothing I had felt before. I almost needed to duck as a jet aircraft passed overhead. ... and landed on a runway for the SLO airport just across the highway! Wow. Forget any idea of sleep. I woke Alaor and we started to saddle up. ... I went ahead, knowing they would catch me eventually. ... and a little further on, I got another flat tire.

It seemed as if it took forever to get a patch to work properly ... I was down to only one more remaining patch. In fact, I went through several false starts. One van drove by one direction then, minutes later, came back the other way. The driver stopped across the street, rolled down his window and asked if I was okay. Yes. Awhile later, a police car drove by. The cop asked if I had enough light. "Yes, almost done".  Anyway, it was getting very late. If I kept going, and did not have any more flats, I would make the overnight control after one more big climb ... with only an hour or two to spare. But could I really ride the next day? And enjoy it?

I went as far as Morro Bay, then checked into a motel, the Harbor House. 290 kms for the day.

It was really so much nicer than the previous night's Motel 6, for only a few extra dollars. I slept until 8AM, arranged to go BACK to SLO and take a train in the afternoon to Salinas, where one of the volunteers could meet me for a short drive back to Santa Cruz.
From Kitty's Kitchen in Morro Bay

I had a lovely breakfast at Kitty's Kitchen in Morro Bay, got a book at the small independent bookshop across the street, and rode via the Morro Bay State Park toward SLO. In SLO, I bought some spare clothes, saw the nice historic center of town (that our ride the day before had bypassed), and hopped the train to Salinas where Sharon, one of the dedicated volunteers, met me and gave me a lift to the Elks Club.
The old mission at SLO

Bears playing sculpture in front of the old mission.

A smoothie bowl for lunch, outside, in SLO.
I got a decent night of sleep, and as I ate breakfast at the motel lobby the next morning, in came a tired randonneur -- he had DNFed -- as had quite a few others -- but made it back to Santa Cruz under his own power. He said the very steep short ramps at the top of the climbs had done him in. Yes, they took a lot out of me, both Indian Valley and Foxen Canyon Roads ... and many more if I had ridden the third day.

660kms in two days was really all I needed to feel that I had gotten in a good long ride. And I was glad to see some of the nicer side of Morro Bay and SLO. But I have got my work cut out for me to be ready for PBP next year!

Thanks to Lois, Bill and all the other volunteers -- especially Sharon who gave me a lift from the Salinas train station back over the hills to Santa Cruz!

Day one route.

Day two route.  (... I stopped at km 285 or so, plus my side trips).

Day three route.  (...  instead I just rode back to SLO (San Luis Obispo).

23 August 2018

Official 2020 Olympic Road Race Course revealed - Hell in August

This course can be hellish in August. The beginning will be hot. And the South Side of Fuji will be hot -- even at 1400 meters. And Mikuni Pass has very little / no shade and is crazy steep and crazy hot. 4865 meters of elevation gain over 234 kms.

I've ridden almost all of this at one time or another. And cannot wait to do it again ... but not in August. Fall or Spring.

More here.

14 June 2018

Race Across America - Solo 2018

The solo riders are well into their second day of riding in RAAM 2018.

The Japanese entrant, Hirokazu Suzuki (ずっちゃ to friends), seems to be doing well, solidly in the middle of the pack (upper middle). In 1 day and 7 hours, he had ridden over 407 miles and passed Congress, Arizona. He is on track for a "projected" finish of 10 days and 8 hours. Wow. Suzuki-san "wrote the book" on successful randonneuring in Japanese, literally.

Suzuki-san has a support team including many of the key Japan audax members -- starting with Maya Ide.

The RAAM leader is perennial champion Christoph Strasser. At 614 miles already, he is WAY ahead of everyone else, around 100 miles ahead of the 2nd place rider.

You can track them all on the leaderboard here.


(P.S. It was only this January that Jerome and I joined a 200km brevet Suzuki-san also rode. Shockingly, we finished ahead of him, though I think he was riding that day with his spouse on a kind of "warm down" from the previous day's training).

Update: After 3 days and 10 hours, Zuccha is in 8th place, with nearly 1000 miles covered and a large group of riders lapping at his heels, though he was once in the midst of that pack. Not sure about sleep schedules, etc., but will check back tomorrow. Meanwhile, Christoph Strasser is around 250 miles ahead of the 2nd place rider!

Update: Zuccha made it to West Virginia before his race ended. He started to fall behind schedule once across the Mississippi, and faced the hilliest part of the course through the Appalachians, when he was hit by a case of Shermer's neck -- where the neck muscles can no longer fully support the weight of the human head. Solo RAAM is hard, almost inhuman.

13 June 2018

15th Fuji HC -- 2018

Tokyo Cranks Finishers at 5th Stage lodge
The Mt. Fuji Hill Climb is a "fun ride" mass event up the Subaru Line, nearly 10,000 riders starting around 1000 meters elevation at Fuji Hokuroku Park and going to the Fifth Stage, somewhat over 2300 meters elevation. The timed part of the course is 24 kms, the actual is another km or more from the park entrance to the Subaru Line entrance.

In 2008, Positivista Juliane ("the Gazelle") Prechtl was the 4th place woman finisher, and Tom Wielrenner, only weeks after his 285km breakaway/solo Tokyo-Itoigawa performance, also clocked a great time ... not sure exactly how great, but great.

In 2009, we also had an excellent team, led by James Knott and sponsored by his company. That year, I had my personal best time of 1:34:07, a few weeks before the start of Transalp.

In 2010, our corporate sponsor was gone, and more than one Positivista was planning a departure from Japan. I was recovering from an injury. By 2011, we had other priorities -- Transalp, Étape du Tour, and PBP that summer for me. And the Fuji HC really only is worth it as a weekend out of town with a group of  friends up at the mountain.

So I was happy this year to join the Tokyo Cranks' annual Fuji HC team and try it again after 9 years hiatus. We had 14 members in total. Seven of us (and Yamada-san, a friend of Yuki and Naoko, was just along for the Saturday ride) met along the Tamagawa at Komae a few minutes after 7AM on Saturday. I had planned the route -- over Otarumi Pass, then through Akiyama along Yamanashi Route 35 over Hinazuru Pass to Tsuru, and up the hill to Kawaguchiko.
Along the Asagaway on the way to Takao, with Naoko, Yuki, Lena, Nils and Yamada-san,
waiting for Glenn and Tim as they fix Glenn's flat.
Even with the early start it was a very hot trip. We made good time to Takao, over Otarumi, then onto Route 76 and finally made the turn off to take Routes 518 then 35 through a series of up, down and up sections. It was HOT and HUMID. I overheated and in one of the towns pulled over and asked a lady at a small shop if I could use her outdoor faucet/hose to cool down. She said "no water from that one, wait a minute", and brought out another hose connected to a faucet from her garage. Salvation. She gave me an ice pack that I slid into my rear center jersey pocket.
The shop on the left - life saving water stop.

Akiyama sky and green

We are climbing now.

Glenn at the manju shop

Route 35 is popular with cyclists, and almost no cars.
Then more climbing. The thermometer on my bicycle computer said 36 degrees celsius when in the direct sun. Finally we reached the famous manju shop, and rested in the shade while enjoying miso manju. The old folks in the back brought us green tea, then umeboshi. We took a longer rest than expected. And it was closer to the top of the climb than I had remembered. Through the tunnel we went, then a fast and fun descent to Tsuru.

Our group split. Nils, Lena and I decided we had done our pre-hill climb workout, and took the train up the valley. Everyone else rode (except for Yamada-san, who headed back to Tokyo).
Our Fujikyu train - Thomas the Tank engine version!

At the registration and start village, Glenn hams it up for the camera
Nice relaxed mood.
We had a great dinner, thanks to John K. and Rolf for shopping, and to Jon T., Nils and others from bringing wine. And to everyone, as we all did some of the prep and cooking. Lena "fired" me for cutting my potato slices too thick ... but they worked out just fine.
Slicing zucchini, as instructed.

Tim, Lena and I prep. Tim is Australian, so he manned the barbeque.
Lena is moving back to Chicago this week with husband and 3 daughters. The Fuji HC was on her
"Japan bucket list". I guess it reminded me a bit of the 2009 event,
and how many of those expats I rode with left within the following year or two.

Kampai! Bottoms up!
Maybe Ian and Andreas were faster because they did not drink alcohol? Maybe not

Great rental houses, close to Kawaguchiko station and
ideal for train watching. The trains did not run during the wee hours.
Anyway, after the ride out to Yamanashi, the hill climb itself was almost an anticlimax. Almost.

We awoke early, but decided to skip the speeches, and miss the 6AM luggage drop off deadline. It was slightly wet - a bit of mist - but the mist lifted and we rode to the start in dry, if very cloudy, conditions. Most of us left the house after 7AM. I was supposed to go with the 15th (of 20) waves, and I got to the start area as the 11th wave headed out. Perfect.
There goes wave 12, or is it 13.

Ready and set.
The climb was a bit more painful than I remembered. I knew the first 5kms was steeper than average, so I took it easy so as to have something left in the tank for later. Everything went OK, if slower than I would have liked. I had planned to eat a bit and maybe even pull off for 30 seconds after reaching 1500 meters ... but had no need. Instead, I made it to over 1900 meters elevation, then took a quick break for bathroom, energy bar and cardio rest, maybe two minutes total. I felt much stronger the next few kms and passed many riders I had been with before the break, so I think it was worth it. I remembered the long, 2-3 km, flat stretch near the finish, and I was able to go at decent speed (30kph? more?) through most of that. But my memory had blacked out the agony of the relatively steep last kilometer to follow. I kept looking for the finish markers in the mist. They took a long time to appear, but there was Ian, with his smart phone, and then I was over the recording pad.

My time was 2:02. Just over my target of 2 hours. Not good, but not so bad for my current weight and condition. I should try again next year, and train (and diet) to get back to 1:45.

Almost at the top.

Nils ... right behind me!
The Cranks gathered on the second floor of the main lodge, enjoyed some food (ramen, etc.) and waited until every member had finished and the lines of riders waiting in the cold to descend had shortened. I bought a T shirt and lined my chest with newsprint for warmth on the descent. My thin rain shell just was not going to be warm enough, without full finger gloves or a cap to cover my ears.

Triathletes Naoko and Yuki were much faster climbers than most Cranks.
Both Ian and Andreas were in the 1:17 range, too.
The descent was long, and slow (controlled by staff riders and a pace car.). But it only got touch and go when, over 1/2 way down, it started to rain. My thermometer said 10 degrees C. That's cold with rain and basically summer gear!

The rain got a bit stronger and I cancelled my plan to ride back to Tokyo. It got stronger yet, and I cancelled my plan to ride down the hill to Otsuki before hopping a train. It was pouring. In the end, Jon T. dropped me at Kawaguchiko Station for the 4PM express bus to Shibuya. Actually not a bad way to go, at all. A great group to hang out and ride with, and a successful event.
Next year, faster!

(*There is another event a week later, the Mt. Fuji INTERNATIONAL Hill Climb, which goes up the Azami Line from Subashiri. That is NOT a mass event, but rather a JBCF race. Why? About the same elevation gain ... in less than half the distance! It boasts an average grade of over 10% and is just brutal.)

27 May 2018

Akigawa Ride

Akigawa - Hinohara valley from the climb to Kobu Tunnel
I woke up a bit too late to get to the Tokyo Cranks' 715AM start at Futakotamagawa today. I was following the latest in reported medical research. I decided to join the Cranks at Seijo for coffee and head out on a longer ride. At least I made it to Seijo before they disbanded, and a group could admire the Sky BlueParlee, Gokiso wheels, and even matching blue jersey and helmet.

It was a nice day, if a bit hot. I headed upriver.

Picnic at the river -- best watched on "full screen" setting (click box on the lower right corner of video).

In the end I rode to Itsukaichi and up the Akigawa and through Kobu Tunnel. I had planned to descend to Uenohara, climb over Otarumi (or Wada) Pass,and hop a train from Takao. But in the end, I realized I had left my GPS at the bottom of the climb to Kobu Tunnel, and so needed to return to get it, and then rode down the hill to Itsukaichi. Total distance was just over 100 kms. Not bad for a late start and a hot day.

As usual, the Akigawa was beautiful. I only got out the camera on the way down, so here are some photos as I went down the valley.

Spring is nearly done, but still plenty of color

I resisted the temptation to descend to the swimming hole at Motojuku 

Cyclist friendly ramen etc. shop at Motojuku.  Mura-Ace instead of Dura Ace!

Looks like fun.

Fast trip down the valley

Overgrown thatch roof at the Kurochaya kaiseki restaurant. There must be beautiful view from the windows today

More overgrown roof to the restaurant.

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


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?


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.


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.


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

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).