24 August 2010

"Be a Man" said the Russian

As I rode out towards Ome with Laurent I thought I was unlikely to write a blog about the ride as I did not want to draw attention to the fact we were sneaking off for a Monday ride. Admittedly I had some concerns in the back of my mind as this was my first ride with him and like the other Belgian-on-a-bike I know I suspected he enjoyed pain & suffering. The previous night I saw the weather forecast was calling for 92% humidity at 6am and a high temperature of 35-36C and told Laurent whose response hinted about the events of the next day: "I'm just re-watching The Deer Hunter and if they can go through that then we can ride. Just don't bring a pistol and a bullet as we mind end up preferring that."
We made the obligatory stop at the Aurora Bakery (the PE sticker is still on the pole outside the shop) when we were approached by an American man who said our accents reminded him of a TV Cold War spy series called The Company which he was watching. When Laurent pointed out he was in fact not British the man said "of course not, you are Russian" and then told us about Sasha, a mole in the CIA and to be particularly careful of his cardboard cut-out because it is alive. Confused? So were we. He explained he had been to a party "for a couple of hours" - it was now 9am on a Monday morning. I never knew Ome had such a wild scene. Our stoned American sauntered off towards the station but reappeared in 7-11 warning us that we were being followed, but not by him. Drugs do strange things to people and this enables me to introduce the usual drug/booze crazed rock star.
This week I learned the story of Vince Taylor, the singer who David Bowie credits as his inspiration for Ziggy Stardust. Vince was a moderately successful Elvis-type singer who in 1958 wrote the song Brand New Cadillac, made famous by The Clash in 1979. Although popular, the BBC would not play the song on the radio as it was deemed to be advertising. Vince's career struggled so he found work in Paris.

Vince became seriously unhinged when he tried LSD and appeared in front of his band-members holding a bottle of Matteus wine telling them he was now Matteus, the son of Jesus Christ. At the concert that night he took a jug of water into the crowd and tried to baptise the black leather-clad audience. It didn't go down too well and his career was pretty much over.

On the road to the Holy Fountain the temperature was already 33C. The heat, the previous day's ride and my first run in 2 years which left me with very tight hamstrings made climbing tough. My time up Yamabushi was almost 4 minutes slower than in the spring. On the way up I was thinking about which station I could get to on the other side but the descent made me feel OK and I told myself to HTFU. In the now searing heat we turned off up to climb Shigasaka. Last time Laurent took a wrong turn and ended up riding up a wall before the road leveled out. This time we got the 'right' road which initially felt like a beautiful and gentle climb up the valley. No sooner had I said we had dodged a bullet and had found a nice road the gradient kicked up, and then up more. 10%, 11% and even 12%..... hard work. About 2km from the tunnel at the top we found a pipe gushing cold mountain water. Even Bertie Contador would have stopped. By the time we reached the top I was cooked and fully intended to branch off at the bottom of the descent and head to a station.
At the junction at the bottom I was about to make my excuses and say farewell when Laurent, the Russian, delivered the killer line: "Be a Man". This is an in-joke between Laurent, a mutual friend and me and is a more polite version of HTFU. I could not face our mutual friend questioning my manliness. The video clip explains the phrase.
So instead of turning right and enjoying a flat/downhill ride to the station I turned left and headed up the road in blazing sun. At the entrance to Shiozawa Toge we stopped at a local village shop for water and ice-cream. No water so cold green tea. Very nice on its own but not so good later on during the climb when luke-warm and mixed with High 5 summer fruit flavoured energy powder. A very chatty old lady running the shop pulled stools out for us and offered us her kuri-gohan (chestnut rice) from the previous night. When we told her we were riding up Shiozawa she was surprised and said she had never actually been up there despite probably living around there all her life. I grew suspicious. Laurent claims he remembers a steep bit from the year before but not much else. The human brain has the ability to suppress painful memories.
The climb starts as quite hard work (9-10% up to a bridge) but soon after becomes a monster. Coming around a corner the road narrows and kicks up to 16%. Just as I was about to tackle this slope a truck came so I had to stand aside. No chance of starting again so I walked the next 50m. I thought I could have done it so soon when the next ramp came I managed to ride it (16%). It got worse. On the next slope I managed to keep riding until about 18% then stepped off. The next one was a non-starter for me: 200m at 22%. Even the local postman's motorbike was struggling. After this the gradient dropped to a more comfortable 7% only to kick back up to 14% for a short stretch. The descent is long and fast but narrows in the middle so caution is urged.
We hammered it down to Tomioka and then up an unexpected 100m climb to Annaka where we boarded the train to Takasaki from where we took the shinkansen. I felt sorry for the people sitting around us on the train. The man sitting next to Laurent abruptly got off at Omiya, probably to call his wife to say that he felt faint and wasn't going to back in Tokyo that night but felt he had to break his journey in Omiya. When I got home my children didn't want to come near me. I got in the shower fully-clothed.

Although my legs were not in top form it was a very enjoyable and challenging day. 180km, 2500m of climbing and 8 or more litres of fluid during the ride and lots afterwards. I didn't have a camera so had to make do with my cellphone, hence the lack of photos.


2 comments:

Jimmy Shinagawa said...

Nice one.

Manfred von Holstein said...

Shiozawa Toge is a real killer, especially in this heat. You are still powered by the Col du Tourmalet!

BTW, a bit further up route 463/299, there is another pass called Shionozawa Toge - very gentle climb if you go through the tunnel, and takes you up to only about 700m. A good gateway to cycle all the way to Karuizawa.

I also recommend trying out some of the other passes over into Gunma for a change. They are not steeper than Shigasaka, just a bit different.