God created the earth and after almost finishing his work on the sixth day, he had still quite an amount of hills, slopes, gorges and sharp road turns left in his Lego Earth construction kit. As he spend already quite some time fiddling around with Norwegian Fjords and the like, he just dumped all this stuff in a place called Shuzenji in Japan, erected a high fence around the area and placed warning signs:
" MANKIND! DO NOT ENTER! AND DON'T EVEN THINK OF CYCLING HERE!"
Everything went fine for the next 5 million years or so, then the first Japanese appeared in the place, lost a big war, started economical reconstruction and the time was right for building a splendid cycling track somewhere in the country. Almost naturally the choice felt on Shunzenji.
"Yeah God, what you wrote made very much sense five million years ago, but now we have carbon frames, Shimano Di2 electronic shifters and 98 gram AX lightness calipers for 169.000 Yen a pair. Hm, different picture, right? And by the way we will fully leverage the investment cost with syndicated bundled loans from Lehmann Brothers, convertible of course."
Since then, Japan enjoys the existence of a full fledged bicycling training track which is disguised as a bicycle-themed amusement park. And as the JCRC (Japan Cycling Racing Club Association) decided to hold at least two races a year in their annual championship series there, I need to go there to attend the races.
THIS IS AS CLOSE TO BICYCLE HELL AS IT GETS.
JCRC decided to let the D class race start at 7:44 AM, which in turn let me wake up at 4 AM, jumped into the packed car and drive the 140 km or so from Tokyo to Shuzenji. Amazingly the streets were full with cars, even at this time in the morning. The car navigation system, which is not really up to date, proposed some crazy routes, which are basically calculated on the fact, that the fastest road between Tokyo and Kyoto is still the Tokaido. First proposal : 3:20 hours. In the end I made it in 1:45 hour without speeding too much.
Arrived at the parking lot and already many cars and riders were there, even some tents from guys who spend the night there. I assembled the bike and did some training laps on the road circling the parking lot. As I did a training ride to Tomin no mori two days ago (700 meters of constant climbing) I could still feel the pain in my muscles. As usual I was overtaken by other riders, who even during training go 50% faster than I will ever be able to go.
This year I attended the first JCRC Shuzenji race in March as well. At the race in track counter-clockwise direction, I already lost contact with the main field after the start on the first climb when the pace-making motorcycle was leading the field. This should give a good idea of the hardness of the track, the level of the competition and the performance level I am living up to.
I think the only chance I ever have to win something in Shuzenji is, if all other riders would be forced to sit backwards on their bikes, with the legs strapped tightly to the front fork and pedalling with their arms. In addition it would help if they would also be blindfolded. In other words, I really shouldn't go there and race.
At 06.30 AM the gates to the amusement park were opened and I proceeded to enter. There was no registration desk outside and of course I did not bother to take the registration confirmation postcard with me. At the entrance I was asked, if I have the registration with me. This was a pretty stupid question, I thought, because what else would somebody at the age of 45, in full racing attire with his bike do at 6:30 AM in Shuzenji. All the attractions, like the rollercoaster for the six year of age were still closed anyway. So I thought, OK, let's nevertheless try the polite Japanese approach first:
" I am so sorry, accidentally I must have left the postcard at my house, is there really nothing that can be done?" Accompanied by much sucking of air and constant pulling of the right earlobe.
"It is absolutery forbidden to enter without registration."
Bull. What should I do?
"Ha.Ha.Ha. Prease enter, I was only joking."
I completely fell for it. I think that this is a good sign and gives hope for the internationalization of Japan, if people finally are able to do this quite of complex, Western type of joking.
I proceed to the track and did two training laps. The race was conducted in clockwise direction which suits me much more. At the start there is a slight slope which is followed by a steeper slope for some more time. From there on its a constant, fast downhill ride with some fast and sharp turns. It is easy to reach here 60 km/hr and more, but for milquetoasts like me, I constantly stand on the brakes and trying to stay on the road. Then a long climb starts, perhaps 80 elevation meters, followed by an even faster downhill where one comes close to 70 km/hr. And then there is the steepest part up to the finish line. In total the track is 5 km long and a total climb of 120 meter elevation is involved.
I never did more than 3 laps in a row on this track and I was supposed to do 5 today.
I went to the start at 7:30 AM and met Goro-san who started in the C class 2 minutes ahead. Also I met Ishii-san, one of the nicest Japanese riders I ever met and who is racing D class just as me. He crashed just in front of me at the Hitachi-Naka race in July, as he was trying to bunny-hop over a crashed rider in front of him: Result: Fork broken, carbon frame unusable, retired from the race. If he hadn't, he would have been a fierce contender for the D class title this year.[Readers who are actually interested to read about the race, please start here].
Bang. And the C class is off from the start. 2 minutes later the D class starts. The light drizzling rain almost stops immediately. And 2 minutes after the E class starts. I can easily follow the peloton and I think: "Hey, I am in good shape". But then I notice that the pace making motorcycle is still in front of us and everybody is holding back. The leading motorcycle disappears at the start of the first downhill section and too early I find myself at the start to the long uphill part. Due to the huge mass momentum which my body is supporting, I have a good impulse which takes me beyond some riders for the first 20 meters or so, once I ran out of momentum, I am falling back into last place. I hear that familiar sound: The motorcycle, that is trailing the field behind the last rider.
After the first lap I am very much behind the peloton, but I can also see some other riders from the D class with white helmet covers which are within reach. When I go up the long downhill for the second time, the E class riders are overtaking me, they have made up for the 2 minutes delay in starting time.
I always find the first two laps the hardest: There is still so much in front of you and the body is still feeling the pain; simply not enough endomorphines running through one's vein. I go back into survival mode and try to keep some pace and stay at least above 15 km/hr on the uphill parts.
That works out fine. Finally I start to overtake some of the other D class riders, not many, but at least I cannot hear the sound of the motorcycle any longer. My lap times are around 11 minutes, so I am much, much faster than in March and I should not become overlapped if I stay steady. If I manage to do fast four laps, I can take it easy on the fifth one: There is nothing to win for me anyway but I must do four laps before the head of the field finishes the race in five laps, otherwise I will get disqualified.
There are some crashes in the downhill section. One rider is holding his head, it seems he has crashed just shortly before I arrived and he seems to be in pain. On the long uphill of the fourth lap I overtake one more D class rider from Nalsima who is struggling hard. I give him a smile and shout "Gambatte". This is not altruistic at all, I don't want him to give up, otherwise I might end up again in last place.
Then the C class is overtaking me on the uphill part. Now I should be worried. Really worried. In less than four laps these guys have made up one lap on me minus two minutes later start. The top of the D class field must be very close now. So I give it one more push to the top of the hill, than start the fast downhill and stay with the C class riders, then with good momentum I even overtake some of them on the last uphill. I am really worried that the D class will outsprint me and that I will get lapped. I give everything I have and finally cross the finish line.
Then I realize, that I still have to go one more lap. Oh yes, I should not get lapped, but I also must finish the race. I go relatively easy and risk nothing on the downhill parts. I am relatively fresh when I arrive at the last uphill to the finish line, so I make a good show and sprint into the finish.
No sound of motorcycles behind me, I shouldn't be in the last place. Great. So the evening conversation with my son will be slightly different than usual:
"I attend the race today at Shuzenji."
"In which place did you finish?"
"Well, 47th place."
"Was it the last place?"
"In which place did you finish?"
"Well, 47th place."
"Was it the last place?"
Actually, I made a very respectable 47th place. Out of 48 riders of course. But some of the other riders I overtook gave up. Or perhaps they were lapped.
I met Goro-San after the race, of course he made another splendid show and finished third in the C class race. Ishii-san finished in 40th place, but still 4 minutes ahead of me.
Out of 8 JCRC races this year, I finished 3 times in last place and 2 times in second last place. One second last place was only due to the fact that I dragged somebody to the race who was definitely not prepared to race in D class. Everywhere in the world this would be considered a lousy performance. However, due to the somewhat peculiar point-system in Japan, I am leading the D class classification. Only three more races. Three more last places will do the trick, I will almost fly to victory.