15 October 2011

Three years

On Thursday, it was three years to the day that I completed my first road bike day ride: http://positivo-espresso.blogspot.com/2008/10/izu-west-coast-cruising.html. A month earlier I had gone to the headquarter outlet of Canyon in Koblenz, Germany, and picked up my first road bike. On 13 October 2008, MOB finally found the time in his busy racing and training schedule to take me onto a weekday ride to Izu.

Little did I know back then that I would end up cycling at least once a week, become addicted of climbing mountains rather than staying in the flat, win a racing championship (more here:
http://positivo-espresso.blogspot.com/2010/01/championship-memoirs.html) and end up doing dusk to dawn rides, sometimes two to three days in a row.

In these three years, I cycled 37,275km: 11,800km in the first twelve months, 12,500 in the following 12 months, and 13,000km in the last twelve months. I did not keep a total tally of the altitude meters climbed, but it must be somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000 metres.

When I was deciding on what bike to buy, I was wondering whether a carbon bike would last more than 6,000km and then disintegrate. I took the risk - very naively. My Canyon carbon bike has clocked 27,300km by now, without anything more than normal wear and tear. I'm about to replace the break pads and wheels, as the breaking down the mountains has worn the rims a little thinner. Nonetheless the wheels are still perfectly usable and will move to my cheaper aluminium Canyon kept in Germany (which so far has seen a modest 3,800km).

The remaining 6,200km have been on my Red Bull cyclocross which has enabled me to expand my "discovery" of rindos (forest/mountain roads) to unpaved ones, and winter conditions.

I should celebrate the fact that I have been accident free throughout these three years. The worst that has happened to me is road rash when my cyclocross went sliding, twice, ironically both times on paved roads, once over moss, the second time over oil.

All this riding has also kept me fit and healthy. My cholesterol measurements have never been better, for example.

If only my back had not suffered. My first half a year on the bike was entirely trouble free. Since then, however, on every ride I would develop pain in my lower back. Depending on how long I was riding without break and how hard I was pushing, this pain would come earlier or later in the ride, and develop sometimes such intensity that I could not continue riding without a few minutes off the bike. On most rides, the pain from my back would far outdo any kind of exhaustion. What kept me still going was the wonderful scenery in the mountains, and the ambition to complete a big ride.

Since August of this year, things started to deterioate, steadily. My back would not only hurt on rides any more, but permanently. In early October, the pain became worse day by day, and it is now so bad my walking is impeded. MRIs show that two disks are squeezing the central nerve.

I must stay off the bike to avoid advancing things even more than they already do by themselves. Even if my back gets better again at some point, it is unlikely I will ever be trouble free. Passing a three-year anniversary in this state is not filling me with much joy. It is difficult enough to miss the best cycling weather in Japan, the mild and long autumn.

As my present state and a look into the future is filling me with pain, it perhaps wiser to look back and think of all the great moments I have had on the bike.

First of all there is all the great countryside I have had the chance to discover. Three years ago I largely ignorant of the geography surrounding Tokyo. When I landed in Japan 16 years ago, I would occasionally go on hikes in the Okutama, Jinba and Tanzawa mountains, but in later years hardly venture outside Tokyo on weekends.

Today I can proudly claim that there is basically no mountain road or pass in rural Tokyo, Kanagawa, Yamanashi and Saitama I do not know. I have also covered most of Gunma, Nagano and eastern Shizuoka. This includes the highest mountain pass in Japan - Norikura at 2,700m - which I have climbed three times.

It also includes unpaved roads, many officially closed roads and rindos, some hiking paths, a forbidden tunnel, and even an entire forbidden (but really stunning) valley somewhere in the Japanese Alps (I had to promise not to reveal more when I got caught).

I also have made occasional excursions beyond the Kanto-Joshinetsu area: Hokkaido, Kansai, Yamaguchi and Kyushu. There is still so much more to see of course.

In Europe, I have had a good time in southern Germany, England and the Tyrolian Alps in Austria. The "real" Alps are simply stunning, and also quite challenging, more for the variable weather than the slopes - though doing 1,200m up the Kitzbueheler Horn at an average of 13% (!!) is always a killer.

In these three years, I have on basically every ride "discovered" something new - never just repeated a previous route. The only exceptions have been group rides where I held back my urge to discover something new.

Apart from the mountains, there are idylic rural villages (almost anywhere), historic towns (notably Tsumago, Magome, Narai, Takayama), and great onsens.

The highlight has been ten days this year at the Kusatsu Music Academy where I was able to combine cycling (albeit far too little because of the bad weather) and music.

Then there is the great camaderie with other fellow cyclists. I owe to MOB a ride on his older bike in July 2008 which would get me all excited about buying my own bike and giving it a try. He then took me on many rides, teaching me all the basics about getting in and out of Tokyo, also about how to compete in the JCRC championships. We were a good match in me taking photos and him publishing entertaining ride reports.

After MOB left for Germany in Spring 2010, I felt somewhat on my own, and started expanding the length of my rides, often venturing beyond 200km and 3,000m of climbing a day. This is also when I completed my longest ride to date - 340km leaving home at 4am and arriving to just catch the setting sun across the Sea of Japan in Naoetsu 15 hours later (and this being Japan I was still back home three hours later).
I used the newly found endurance to do three-day rides with Mike, discovering the highest mountains in Nagano, which are all quite stunning. The mountain landscape changes above 2,000m - and so does the temperature, which is nice in summer.
Then Tom helped me to stretch myself not only in terms of distance but also pace. Tom rarely needs a break, and he takes all climbs at speed. By now we have done quite a few two-day rides together, where discovering a new (well, often, very old) minshuku to stay is part of the fun of the weekend out.
Finally it is always fun to join a larger group ride and meet new people or see old faces. And these rides almost always end differently as planned.

This is why I like cycling so much: there is always something new and unknown, and yet things always end well (at least so far).

I hope I can return some time in the not to distant future.
In the meantime, I will be as stiff as this monkey in Tama Zoo.


David Litt said...


Thank you for the heartfelt post and all those great photos. We hope your back will recover quickly if you take a good rest, and that you will again be able to ride, without pain, from next year.

I remember the inaugural ride we took up Yabitsu Pass 3+ years back, which I think may have been one of the events that, along with no doubt many stories from MOB, inspired you to buy your road bike and start along this path. It was the only time I have ever been (or ever will be) faster than you on a climb. It was amazing how quickly you mastered the road bike and advanced to your 200-300 km one-day rides and JCRC D Class championship.

See you again soon on the road.

Unknown said...

Feeling a lot of compassion for you Ludwig. Yet, I bet that you will back in the saddle in no time. These nerve/spine triggered pains and near-paralyzation conditions come and go rather abruptly in waves. I do feel a bit a bit of guilt that I may have played a role in the re-triggering of your old ailment. Some of those extra-long and sometimes bone-shaking stretches we covered last summer were a bit too brutal perhaps. I for one, will be switching to a new more "cyclo-tourist" riding style once I'm physically ready to mount my bike again (hopefully starting from November)...