30 December 2011

Cold Valley

The cold sky lightens, 6:30AM December 30, on the cold Chuo Line
back from cold Otsuki, as we approach cold Uenohara

For at least the past month, Jerome has been talking about a "repeat" of last year's attempt to complete that most difficult of winter ultra-endurance cycling events, the "inland mountain route" from Tokyo to Kobe on the last two days of the year, arriving just in time to join the Beeren Club for a ride up the route to sacred Mt. Rokko ("Rokko-san") for the ritual viewing of the first sunrise of the New Year (the "Hinode").

Your humble correspondent joined the first leg of the trip last year, as far as snowy Lake Suwa in Nagano Prefecture (host to the 1998 WINTER Olympics) ... then hopped a train home.  This year, with my older son back in Tokyo from university for a very short of visit, I told Jerome that I could not join him.

On a family overnight trip to Izu this Monday/Tuesday, our shinkansen train was delayed in both directions, because of snow on the tracks between Maebara and Nagoya.  I fired off an email to Jerome -- if there was snow on the relatively low-lying outskirts of Kansai around Maebara, what would the mountain valleys and passes be like Northeast of there?  Surely, only the most courageous (or foolish) cyclist would even try to find out.

On Thursday morning Jerome called.  "You know, the weather has become much warmer and has been dry since Monday, I've been watching the forecast and I think I should be able to do it."  True, it was noticeably warmer in Tokyo on Thursday (low of 4 degrees C, high of 11, according to my morning newspaper), and if this trend held then it would be much better than what we experienced last year.  Jerome said he wanted to get an earlier start than last year, 2AM, so he could be in the Kiso Valley (or over Kamikochi ... madness in trying that route) early in the afternoon.

I hated to see him try this alone, and also wanted a good test of my new dynamo lighting setup, so told him that I might join the first leg -- just the ride out of Tokyo in the dark, assuming I could make it out of the office at a decent hour on the last day of the year, get my bike ready, get some sleep, and manage to stumble out of bed in time for a 2AM start.  No need to wait or call if I was not out front and ready to go.

I awoke at 1:45AM after only a few hours of sleep.  Tired.  We were on the way from my house before 2:15.  The weather was not so cold in Tokyo, but he mentioned that Yazaki-san, the dean of the Beeren Club, had told him it was snowing in Nagano on Thursday.  Jerome had given up the idea of Kamikochi passage, and was instead aiming for Nakasendo through the Kiso Valley.  This should have sent me right back to bed.

The first leg was uneventful, other than a gradually increasing headwind.  The Shimano dynamo hub and Phillips Saferide LED worked beautifully.  We took Yaen-Kaido, then Machida-Kaido and the south side of Lake Tsuikui, joining Route 20 (Koshu Kaido) just over the hill west of Takao.  This route is almost exactly the same distance as going via Takao, but avoids one climb of several hundred meters, in exchange for a few shorter climbs.  Neither route has any significant traffic between 2AM and 4AM!

It was just as we passed Tsukui-ko that the weather started to get really cold.  At a tunnel before the bridge over the lake, the temperature gauge said it was minus 3 degrees C -- and we had not even started the long climb inland up the valley to Sasago.  Rock sand had been spread on the bridge to prevent black ice.  We made our first convenience store stop at a 7-11 just over 50 kms into the ride.  Even Jerome put on some shoe covers, though he did not yet avail himself of a jacket.

According to Garmin Connect, the AVERAGE temperature for the entire 80km ride was -2.8 degrees C (or 26.9 degrees F) -- and that includes a first 20 km that was mostly well above zero degrees C (or 32 degrees F).  Between 4 and 6AM, on the ride out to Otsuki, it must have been -4 or -5 degrees.  My water bottles were frozen within minutes of the 7-11 refill, even though I had added hot water from the convenience store's thermos.

At least my feet were warm.  I had used a combination of thin wool socks, shoe liners, Gore windstopper/felt-lined overshoes, and "kairo" mini chemical warmers, and this managed to barely keep the cold at bay from my toes.  But I had not planned on real sub-zero temperatures.  After the first rest stop, as I shivered through a few short downhills before my engine heated up again, I thought my face would turn to ice and fall off.  My Sugoi-brand head covering, usually just fine for Kanto mid-winter rides, was inadequate.  And even my Nalini winter tights, Assos winter jacket and Craft inner layer with "windstopper" front panel were too thin.  I bid Jerome farewell at Otsuki, around 5:45AM -- I would have slowed him down significantly if I continued.  I sought refuge in a convenience store by Otsuki Station.  My skin was very cold to the touch, not just on my extremities.

I hopped the 6:17AM train back toward Takao, then on to Tachikawa, then the Nambu Line to Musashi Mizunoguchi.  Each of these three was a local train, so the doors opened every 2-3 minutes on average.  I would just start to warm up from a weak heater under the seat when the train car's 8 double doors would open, admitting blasts of cold air and returning the car to sub-zero.  It was a cold 2-hour ride home.  Only on the last train, from Musashi Mizunoguchi to Kaminoge, did I finally feel at all warm.  Then a hot bath and sleep.

I got an email note that Jerome made it to Kofu by 7:30AM ... but hit strong, gusty headwinds thereafter.  He eventually turned around on the climb past Nirasaki, to return to Nirasaki station and get a train for Shiojiri, the entrance to Nakasendo/Kiso Valley.  Did the weather actually get better as he headed by train further inland, to the NW, and to a higher elevation?  I doubt it.  Did he have the sense to stay on a train through Nakasendo and to Gifu, where he was planning to stay with friends?  I hope so.  Stay tuned.

Update, Evening of December 30:  Jerome reports that he remounted the bike at Shiojiri and made it through the Kiso Valley, suffering continually in (cold) headwinds, and arrived at his friends' place in Gifu Prefecture.  He was completely knackered (if I've got that Brit expression right) and suggested he might try to find a less mountainous route for day #2 of his ride. At least the weather forecast for Nagoya/Osaka area looks dry, partly sunny, and low/high temperatures of 1 and 10 degrees C respectively, so this bodes well for his chances.

Update, New Year's Day:  I received a call from Jerome just after midnight, reporting that he was approaching Rokko-san and Kobe, and another note this morning that he had made it successfully.  He departed at 10AM on the 31st from SE Gifu and rode hard, via the North side of Lake Biwa and the Japan Sea (the city of Obama), then over some (icy) mountain roads into Kyoto-fu and on to Kobe.  The weather cooperated on the 31st.  The hardest part was the headwinds and cold after Kofu, in the hours after we parted ways on the morning of the 30th.


Manfred von Holstein said...

Wow, another Only David & Jerome can do... If I was still riding, I would be happy I didn't need to do this - now I'm simply envious...

Hope Jerome arrives well, by whatever means.

A Happy New Year to the two of you!

David Litt said...

Jerome made it! I've updated the post.

Anonymous said...

HI everybody
As David said I could reach the goal but missed New Year eve family event by 15 minutes since I was stuck on Mount Rokko last climb (the good thing is that I could celebrate on top of this sacred mountain.

Actually I could make it thanks to David effective early hour pull to Otsuki (I could save valuable strengths). I was a bit rude to David not stopping to bid farewell after such a nice pull but I was worried about mountain road conditions (needed to make sure to reach Kisoji before 4pm / dawn) & wanted to be on time for dinner. A few minutes after leaving David, Wind started to pick up (next time I should be more polite...). As usual I suffered a lot in the climb to Sasago & felt really alone. I discovered actually that the last part (just before the tunnel) is the easiest...
Once I crossed a succession of tunnel, speed started to pick up but very soon I could feel heavy front wind again. Instead of getting into a train at Kofu I decided to have breakfast at Jonathan & hit the road again 30 minutes later. Once again I could feel strong wind & had the impression my tyres were glued to the road. I made it to Itoigawa first aid station but decided to turn back to Nirasaki station. The way back was very fast at 40 to 50 kms per hour ( I felt strong again with tail wind). I caught at train at around 9h40 & reached Shiojiri an hour later. I was already sweaty & stinky and could feel that every body was avoiding this strange gaijin with a fluorescent jacket peeling off & eating boiled eggs.
When I got off the train everything around was white. I briefly regretted not to get off at Matsumoto station to give a try to the Kamikochi road.
Instead I climbed at a steady pace to Kisoji & could recognize where I slipped a year ago (it was already dark & we decided to stop over before Kisoji which would prevent us from reaching Kyoto mountains before dawn the next day)). I briefly stopped for Yakiniku & beer. The descent towards Nakatsugawa was unevenfull & very boring. I missed the road on the right & had to go all the way along route 19 which becomes very busy & bumpy right after Nakatsugawa. It got dark before I could reach route 21 intersection but could make it on time for a very good dinner (may be too many drinks) & a well deserved hot bath in Shin Unuma

December 31st
I hit the road after a long night sleep. I left my friends place at 9h30 after a solid breakfast. I just flew along route 21 just like a motorway (forbidden to bicycle but...). I missed the first intersection towards Sekigahara by pass when I was disturbed by a car which blew a circle K convenience store front glass (the car was inside the store). Fortunately I had a second chance to get to Sekigahara by pass (although my friends has tried to discourage me from trying the Ibuki / biwako road)

Froggy said...

From here it started to climb regularly for a few kilometers. The road running toward Biwako northern part seemed very long although very nice (all surroundings were covered with snow). As per weather forecasts, clouds appeared but did not last long fortunately. It took me nearly 2 hours from Sekigahara Pass to Makino Togein & the intersection leading to the Japan sea. I stopped a few times to grab some food & answer phone calls from various friends apparently afraid of my getting lost. The last 35 kms to Obama are very nice: the forest road climbs gently up to 300 metres before zeroing to the Japan sea. Tail wind helped me cruise at an average 40 km /h. After a quick 4 o'clock lunch I hit the road again just when the sun started to disappear . Threatening clouds / smoke appeared before dawn: the 25 km climb to Hokuriku pass was very nice but a bit scary in the night. Quickly the road turned icy & I needed to be extra careful to avoid not only ice but a few deers which I apparently disturbed. ONce on the top of the pass I though wrongly I was nearly done. After riding for the next 50 km along forest roads I stopped in a convenience store to discover that I still had close to 60 km before reaching the bottom of Mount Rokko. ONce again my promise to arrive on time for new year day was broken. I reached Sanda at 11pm & gave up fighting to meet the time objective: 30 km left including a 15 km climb to reach Mount Rokko (including a 1km stretch at an average 13%. I could eventually reach the top at midnight call my supporters (Didier & David) as well as confirm my sons that we would not miss the traditional visit to the temple. The last descent to Nishinomyia was quite cold but I was relieved even though I finished 15 minutes late (much better than last year when Yutaka & I made it 8 hours late)

Will definitely try to be on time next year

Thanks again to David, Didier & my family for supporting me along this long but exciting trip