30 December 2010

The Missing Expedition - Updated Photos

Zen. Bike leaning against rock in garden on the shores of Lake Suwa, Nagano Prefecture.

After a delicious and filling dinner at Jerome's house, some preparations and about 4 hours of sleep, Jerome and Yutaka appeared as scheduled at 3:15AM outside my house, as they went ahead with Jerome's crazy plan to ride to Kansai on the 30th and 31st to see the sun rise for the New Year from Mr. Rokko above Kobe. I had agreed to ride out with them today and see them well on their way.

And Yutaka seems to know how to take care of himself in these kind of cycling adventures -- he is one of the Kinki Audax organizers in Kobe, rides around 20,000 km in a typical year, and has done 1000km+ ride events in Canada, the U.S. and Germany within the past year or two. (he mentioned something about a Canada event which involved three 1000 km rides in succession, with a day or two off in between, and also the Cascade 1200 in Washington State).

The only problem with the plan, what made it crazy, was Jerome's insistence on taking the "interior route" through the Kiso Valley via Nagano Prefecture -- a region recommended more for ice skating and downhill skiing in winter than for cycling. And after a fairly dry and warmer than usual early season, normal seasonal conditions had appeared in recent days and weeks.

In any event, the temperature gauge on the hill west of Takao read -1 degree C before 5AM, and as we had passed Uenohara and headed toward Sarubashi and Otsuki, another gauge read -3 degrees C. Our water bottles started to freeze, and it became impossible to get any liquid from them. We pulled in to the 24 hour family restaurant "Gusto" just at the far end of Otsuki, 80 kilometers into the ride, and enjoyed the breakfast special, with an extra order of pancakes and many refills of hot soup and coffee.

Thawing the water bottles as we wait for our breakfast.
Yutaka and David -- guess who is faster going uphill?

The climb toward Sasago tunnel was welcome after we remounted our bikes. I pounded my pedals in a bigger gear than usual, the work generating heat and warming my extremities. The tunnel was warm and almost empty -- only a few cars and trucks passing us each way during the 3.9 kilometers. Then the long gradual descent toward Kofu, blanketed in a layer of thick smoke from wood burning fires -- reminded me of the view of Los Angeles on a summer day, except the smog was greyish white and lacked any brown tinge and, of course, this was no time for shorts and flip flops. We pulled off Rte 20 and headed North into Kofu, seeking a less unpleasant, alternative route through town, eventually (after a quick stop for me to tighten a spoke on my Fulcrum "2 way" tubeless wheels) passing around Kofu Station and heading out to Nirasaki on Route 6 (Yama no te Dori), to rejoin National Route 20.
+1 degree in Nirasaki!

We stopped at a Lawson just a few hundred meters from the Nirasaki checkpoint location for Tokyo-Itoigawa. The store had a counter and chairs INSIDE, where customers could eat their food and drink their drink -- Now after 11AM, and as warm as it would get, the temperature gauge outside the window showed +1 degree C. A Positivo number and the only one we would see!
Then we continued up the long gradual climb toward Fujimi at the Nagano border. At the top, the few flakes of snow flurries picked up, and mixed with some drops of rain. The air was clammy and damp, and getting even more so.

Jerome, after lagging behind on the climb to Sasago and again when he ran out of fuel just before Nirasaki, was getting stronger as usual, and he and Yutaka waited for me at the top. Yutaka always patient with us ... when he no doubt could have zoomed ahead at any point.

On the climb to Fujimi, looking back down the hill toward the South.

The weather ahead looked pretty bleak and there were at least a few centimeters of snow continually along the side of the road -- narrowing the "rideable" surface and making it more difficult for cars and trucks to pass us as we stayed on the dry pavement. I decided to ride as far as Kami-Suwa (190 km+ for the day) and hop the train home for a 5:15 arrival, a hot bath and then dinner with family. I gave Jerome my photocopied map pages -- a lot more detailed than what he had printed from the Internet -- said my goodbyes, and took one last photo of the expedition.

As I took the Azusa limited express train back, looking up at the first of the many lines of mountains that separate Chino from the Kiso valley further west, I could not but wonder whether they would make it, or disappear into the white void and end up on a list of missing explorers and adventurers -- Amelia Earhardt, John Franklin, Jean-Baptiste Charcot -- or whether they might, like the great Norwegian Amundsen, reach their destination, or at least like Ernest Shackleton, eventually make it back to civilization, to try again another day.
The weather closes in on Chino. Not really riding weather in the mountains toward the West.
UPDATE 12/30 10PM: A telephone call this evening reports that the expedition struggled up over the little hill North of Suwa -- as snow was sticking at the higher elevation, descended to Shiojiri, and made the turn onto Rte 19/Nakasendo and headed into the Kiso Valley. They made it about 275 km for the day, through the one longer tunnel, into the valley and to Kiso Village. By then dark was coming and the road was too icy and treacherous even for them. They have found shelter and sustenance for the night and will assess the situation in the morning -- whether conditions permit them to press on, or whether they will use their last remaining lifeline -- the conveyance known as the "Chuo-sen", which can magically extract them out of the Southern end of the valley and to the land known as "Aichi", from which it should be possible to continue by bicycle. Unfortunately, the weather forecasts suggest that even if they can get out of the mountains, more snow may await them.

Ice and gunk stuck on Yutaka's rear brake.
Nothing a little hot water won't cure.

Is this Jerome's host mom in Gifu?
UPDATE 12/31 11:30 PM: An email "where are you" inquiry gets a response, after midnight, of "stuck in Ritto" -- a city in Shiga Prefecture on the SE side of Lake Biwa, near Kusatsu and entering Kansai. The NHK TV midnight broadcast welcoming the New Year shows the monks ringing a huge bell at a temple in Kyoto. There is snow on the ground and on the temple roof. Other live broadcasts show ... more snow in Western Japan, Northern Japan, huge snow being dumped along the Japan Sea, even in Kyushu (Saga). Just about the only place without any hint of snow on this last day of the year seems to be the Pacific Coast within a few hundred kilometers of Tokyo each direction.
Suzuka Pass -- 11:45PM New Year's Eve

UPDATE 1/1 8:00 AM: After waking and going back to sleep early, I am awakened a second time just before 8AM to the ringing of my cellphone -- a New Year's greeting from both Jerome and Yutaka. They are in Yamashina, in Kyoto (if I heard correctly), and are taking the train, having abandoned due to the icy roads. They were stuck in lengthy traffic jams because of the weather, unable to go around the cars as usual b/c of snow and ice on the shoulder.

I will get the full report when Jerome is back in Tokyo -- he is driving back with his family after celebrating the New Year with his wife's parents (and no doubt some time with cyclist friends) in Kobe.

The plan may have been crazy, but the riders demonstrated sanity, at the margin. And you don't get the memories of a lifetime from an easy spin on a warm day.


Manfred von Holstein said...

Any updates? This sounds pretty crazy - hope they made it well through today. There were some snowy and icy patches going up on the north side of Yabitsu today, but nothing like on your photos.

Unknown said...

Thank you for the update David...I was getting worried! You worded that perfectly...an easy balmy ride may not be remembered for a lifetime but an ultracrazy tour de force like the one planned and executed by Jerome and his buddy sure will! Well done Jerome !!!

Manfred von Holstein said...

As the guy who has done pretty crazy stuff in 2010 too, including trips that I had to promise I would never blog about, I could not agree any more...

Happy New Year to you all!


Richard said...

I'd like to congratulate Jerome on his sartorial elegance, particularly those reflective vests (or one vest that folds up on itself?). Did you pick them up in Japan? I am looking for a vest that does the job, but folds up real small.

David Litt said...

For a reflective vest, I suggest you include one in your next Wiggle.co.uk order (brand: Altura, Respro or Madison -- search under Lights & Reflectives category) or try Chain Reaction Cycles

... but if you want a very small and light weight, minimal but quite visible reflective vest Saitama Audax sells one at the start of their events, for 1600 yen. See here:


Richard said...

Thanks for the reflective tips.

Anonymous said...


First of all thanks for pulling us all the way to Suwa lake. The first 180 kms allowed me to digest all the good food I ate the previous week. Just after we split it started to rain & soon rain became snow. for a moment I wish I had followed you back to Tokyo. We stopped a few km after (before Shiojiri pass) & decided it was ti;e to have food & get proper equipment against snow & water. After an hour + stop we headed towards Kisogawa valley. I suddenly recognized Shiojiri pass climb as well as the long descent towards next city. We started to climb towards Kiso with a strong headwind. Yutaka kept hidden in my back while I was pushing against the slope & the wind. When it became dark & road became icy we decided it was time to stop meaning that our plan to stop in Gifu had to be cancelled. We definitely decided to stop when I slid on an icy brigde. Fortunately I was going fast enough not to fall down heavily on my shoulder & suffered no pain / bike was also OK. I can imagine the driver surprise when he saw me disappearing right in front of him. Senior Brevet rider Yutaka then explained that I should be careful especially on bridges
We jumped in the first ryokan in Kiso village, had a light dinner with a few beers & went to bed. We were ready for a long night knowing that we could not hit the road before 8am to avoid icy roads
Next day we left the ryokan at around 8h30 but were soon stopped by a flat tire. I decided that I should not use a new tube but to repair the current one. We also decided to alter our plan to skip icy roads & headed straight towards Nakatsugawa on Route 19. I would not recommand this congested russian moutain road.
Route 155 towards Kuwana & route 1 were as congested as route 19 but headwind changed into tailwind.
This time we tried bikkuri donkey around Yokkaichi for dinner but were very pissed off when we heard there was no "drink bar" & we could not use their plugs to charge our phones & other electronic devises (Bikkuri Donkey will never be eligible to become a Positivo espresso official stop). Just as we were resting I received a phone call from my wife who was stuck in traffic jam a few kms from our resting place. Again the temptation to ask her to give us a lift was great because Yutaka had just informed me about Suzuka pass hardship (350 m climb) & potentially icy road.
No matter we hit the road again & got at the bottom of Susuka pass in no time. As we started to climb we soon faced melting snow & car stopped along the snow< A BMW coupe overtook us at an incredible speed just before sliding, zigzaging & finally stopping in the middle of the road a few inches from me... The shocked driver told us it is Ok but called it quit. The climb was not so steep but resilient cold headwind & snowy road on top of tiredness made it quite difficult (although the view was fantastic), the way down was another story. around 10 cm of snow & freewind cold (- 5 degrees).

Anonymous said...

When I checked my watch it was 11h15 meaning that no way we would make it for New years day on Mount Rokko (120 kms ahead). We were so happy to find a convenience store in the middle of nowhere that we nearly kissed the arbeito. We meet many youngster who were heading up to Suzuka pass temple to celebrate new year day.
Back on our saddle we desesperately looked for a temple to celebrate year 2011 but only found a brazilian restaurant which could not even tell us where was the temple supposed to be a few hundred meters... We decided to keep on riding until we were stuck again by heavy traffic & icy road. We decided it was time to stop & rest in the next Mc Donald (it was already 1h30 am). We were quite surprised to meet an American guy stuck with his truck carrying a Keyaki huge piece of wood he had just got. He was coming from Ashiya but had to stop because it took him 3h00 to drive the last 15 kms. for once we all praised the American civilisation for having creating Mc Donald & Japan for having it open 24 hours a dqy. It was time to have a short sleep & charge all our electronic devices. I regretted not to have asked this fellow to give us a ride when he decided to hit the road again at 4am. In fact it was a great decision; all the traffic was stopped again because of snow. After riding 20 km in the traffic jam (we had to slalom around car & our average speed fell to 8km qn our we decided to hop into a train at Yamashina giving up any hope to make it to Mount Rokko.
We had a farewell breakfast at Mc Donald in Ashiya where I called David to tell him we were safe...
& promised ourselves that we would do it again before it gets too hot

Anonymous said...

Total ride was 600 kms (missing 70 kms from Yamashina to Ashyia) & took us more than 48 hours including a 12 hour stop in Kiso + 3 hours stop in Mc Donald.
I am quite disappointed with this underperformance but will keep such a nice souvenir of this crasy trip which could be done thanks to David, Yutaka & Tomoko, my wife who persuaded me not to do it on my own...

David Litt said...

Thanks for letting us know how things went after Suwa!

Let's ride the Kiso Valley ... after the snow melts.

Froggy said...

You may find this reflective jacket in car accessories shops. In addition to being very bright it has some windbreaking functions & is big enough to be worn over your backpack.
I definitely recommand this type of Jacket which can be found free of charge when you rent a car in France

Manfred von Holstein said...

Jerome, thanks for adding your report recently. It made the whole trip sound even harder than through what we had gathered earlier. Glad it all worked out somehow, even if you didn't make your ultimate goal (which is in full PE tradition, so well done!).