29 April 2013

Flèche #1

Japanese translation follows English.

Tea fields of Shizuoka -- at our first checkpoint.
This weekend I participated in my first ever "Flèche" (French for "arrow").  This kind of ride is a team variant in the usual Audax-sponsored Brevet or Grand Randonee and a Spring tradition since 1947, which has spread from France to other countries' Audax chapters.
Photo by Kawase-san as we climb in eastern Aichi Prefecture.
Initially I committed to join a team with several riders I know well, two of whom did the Rocky Mountain 1200 last year, and one of whom I see often on Kanto-area brevets.  But as the detailed schedule became clear during the application process, our team fell apart when 2 of 4 members dropped out due to schedule conflicts with the Kyushu rides going on this week.

In the end, I was lucky to be picked up by another team that had a spot left.  The leader, Tanaka-san, christened us "AR Chubu and Friends", or maybe "Friends of AR Chubu".  In any event, the other members -- Messrs. Tanaka, Kawase, Matsumoto and Kozakai -- are all from the Chubu area (near Nagoya) and members of AR Chubu, so I was delighted to join as their friend.  I have ridden a few very memorable AR Chubu events, my first 600km ride, and a very damp 500+ kms of a 1000km ride.  I was signed up and ready to depart for a third Chubu event on March 12, 2011.  But of course that was cancelled, due to the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disasters of March 11, 2011 in Northeast Japan.  (If you happen to look at my blog entry about the 600km ride, please note that the rider with the sandwich protruding from his rear jersey is Tanaka-san).

There were 38 teams in all.  The Flèche essentially is a 24-hour ride that must be completed by teams of not less than 3 nor more than 5 persons.  The team must be together at the start and a few other key points (including the finish).  The team must ride at least 360 kms (223.694 miles) along their chosen route, and in order to ensure that it is really done as a 24-hour event, the team must ride at least 25 kms during the last two hours.  The organizers designate a "nice place" at which the team must submit its Brevet cards and for a post-event celebration, so teams plan a route to finish near the "nice place".  Also, the team must choose a route that follows the shortest distance between each checkpoint (presumably so as to prevent any cheating/shortcuts).  Other than that, a team may select its own course and its own start time, within a window of 24~36 hours.  This year, the Japan sponsor was Audax Kinki, and the "nice place" near the finish was Hanazono Kaikan next to Myoushinji temple in NW Kyoto City.  Below were the routes chosen by the 38 teams in this year's event.

As you may be able to see, teams headed toward Kyoto from as far east as Tokyo, as far west as Higashi Hiroshima, as far North as Jyoetsu in Niigata, and from Shikoku and Wakayama in the South.  Many did looping routes as well.

Tanaka-san (I really should call him "sensei" as it turns out he is a pediatric surgeon, but I would probably not recognize him if he were dressed in medical garb instead of spandex with a bike helmet.) planned our route from Shizuoka Station, past the Shizuoka regional airport and Fukuroi City, then north of Hamamatsu to Tengu, into the mountains and over several passes (the highest at approximately 680 meters), down from the hills into Inuyama City, then a fish-hook route along the Kisogawa around the North and West sides of Nagoya, through a long tunnel and down toward Lake Biwa, across a long bridge, then eventually with a last climb before a triumphant arrival into Kyoto.  The route was 408 kms, with plenty of flat stretches, plenty of hills, some seacoast, river valleys, parks, Japanese urban sprawl and deserted countryside.  It even passed the regular starting points used by the Shizuoka and Chubu Audax groups.  The route looked as if it had just about everything one might wish for, and this was home territory for the other members, so I had confidence that the roads would be well-chosen.
One of several lovely river valleys we climbed, I believe on Route 257/420 somewhere near the border of Shizuoka and Aichi Prefectures.
I have done less riding than usual this past 6 to 8 weeks.  Friends visiting, work, and even some international business travel (a trip to Europe and back last week), have not helped.  One week in mid-April, I drove a car further than at any time in recent memory (500+ kms on Monday alone, more driving on Wednesday and Thursday).   And I ate huge amounts on my trip last week and other recent events.  I have added 3-4 kgs of weight since last year.  The best thing about the added weight is that I can again descend much faster than others.  I just get into a tuck position and ZOOM, I go flying past.  This is especially so compared to Matsumoto-san, who cannot be over 65 kgs, and who rides a mountain bike with thick, semi-knobby tires.  The weight also helps in a stiff headwind or cross wind.  Unfortunately, just about everything else about the extra weight is bad.  I fell behind on the climbs, in particular.  I need to lose it before London-Edinburgh-London (as politely suggested by one of the riders at the post-Fleche party who will join that event).

Worse, I was jet-lagged from the European trip, with my head a bit fuzzy.  This impaired my language skills, making it harder to communicate with my Japanese team members.  Tanaka-san's Japanese was extremely precise and clear, but I could barely understand a word that Matsumoto and Kawase were saying.  Maybe my ears had yet to clear from Friday's return flight?  When I tried to ask Tanaka if we were to continue on the same road "michi-nari", the words came out a meaningless "michi-nami" instead.  Still, I figured, even with jet lag, the ride was only 400 kms.  And if I dropped off, the rest of the team could still finish with the required minimum of 3 members.

A week before the event, we got a note from Kozakai-san that his bicycle had been pretty badly smashed up in an accident and, while he was generally okay, there was no way his bicycle would be ready for the Flèche.   He was clipped by a side view mirror as a car passed him, sending him flying.  Ouch.  So it was only four of us who started out on a beautiful, sunny morning from Shizuoka Station.  Kawase-san had arranged for a "support car" driven by his friend.  Under the Audax rules, a support car cannot offer any assistance outside of the checkpoints.  On the other hand, our route had checkpoints every 40~65 kms, so we had plenty of chances to meet up along the way.  This proved extremely helpful -- especially at the end.
Messrs Kawase, Tanaka and Matsumoto of AR中部の仲間たち
We headed toward the seacoast and turned west, into the WIND.  And what a wind it was.  This was a stiff, Shizuoka west wind like I remember from January 2011 and again in early April 2011.
The "koi nobori" were flying in the wind all day!
The wind slowed our pace dramatically.  We got to the first checkpoint about 15 minutes later than planned.  We worked really, really hard, but were another 15 minutes behind at the second checkpoint, and would fall a further 30 minutes behind our plan when we stopped there for lunch.  And we rode oddly for a team -- I fell behind on the hills, went ahead on the descents (unless I applied my brakes!), and on the flats we could sometimes ride together, but often got separated -- in the wind, I would take a turn in front and sometimes look back to see that a gap had opened.  Or vice versa.

As we approached the second checkpoint, Kawase-san seemed to be suffering, and he decided that he would go ahead directly from the checkpoint so as to get a bit ahead of us, instead of joining Tanaka, Matsumoto and myself for a lunch of ramen and then risk falling behind us.  Matsumoto-san set us into a panic when he seemed to have misplaced his Brevet card -- only to find it a few minutes later.  (No Brevet card, no finish).  And we gave up on the idea of completing the entire 408 km route, remembering that we could complete a Flèche just by getting through the first 360 kms.

At the third checkpoint, around 130 kms, Kawase-san greeted us, emerging from the support car in street clothes.  He had had enough, suffering from ailments described in Japanese I could not quite understand.

Now I was no longer just an "extra" on the team, but was actually needed for the team to complete the event.  Each of the remaining 3 team members needed to finish, within the rules, in order for any of us to complete the Flèche.  We had no margin for mislaid brevet cards, forgotten checkpoint receipts, mechanical problems, stomach upset, or crashes!  At least we managed to make it through the entire event without major mechanical problems or crashes, and managed to recover in time from the forgotten receipts, stomach upset and minor mechanicals.  And Kawase-san appeared from time to time at the side of the road to cheer us on and take photos, so there should be a good photographic record of the daylight portions of the event.

By the time we left the mountainous segments and rolled into Inuyama ("dog mountain") City, Northeast of Nagoya, it was well after midnight.  After an inadequate meal and some brief "head down on table" time at Denny's, we left around 2:30AM.  From Inuyama, we finally made decent time, riding together in a line (mostly) along a bike path and/or access road next to the Kisogawa around the edge of Nagoya.  The Denny's meal got the best of me, and my stomach started to act up.  On the western edge of Nagoya, we tried to rest horizontally on benches in a park -- though I at least started to shiver in the 4AM cold, and none of us managed to sleep.  We were back on the bikes in 15 minutes or so and continued to make decent progress, into Mie Prefecture and to our checkpoint at Inabe City.

310 kms done.  2.5 hours behind schedule, but 360 kms well within reach.
Photo by Kawase-san, in Mie Prefecture early morning
The dawn brought a beautiful morning and then another climb along Route 421, past flowering trees and forests to the mouth of a tunnel.  One member noted before the climb that the tunnel mouth was just under 400 meters elevation.  This was true.  As usual, Tanaka and Matsumoto waited for me at the tunnel entrance.  I tried to lead the group through the tunnel and set a decent pace, but something was not right.  After 21 hours on the bicycle, with jet lag, riding in a tunnel, I felt disoriented.  I knew it should not be that difficult to ride at 22~24 kph through a flat tunnel.  Was my brake shoe rubbing?  Or were my tires getting flat?  No, and no.  ... so it was a relief to finally notice that the altitude indicator on my Garmin device ticking up, meter-by-meter.  Yes, indeed, we were still going up hill!  By the time we emerged at the other end of the 4 km long tunnel (Matsumoto and Tanaka first, me following well behind), we had climbed another 100 meters -- a steady 2.5% inclined plane.

We descended the hill at high speed (me first, then Tanaka and Matsumoto well behind), stopped at exactly 7AM for our 22 hour checkpoint, recording our location at the post office in Mandokoro and obtaining the signature of a local gentleman who had stopped his car to enjoy a morning cigarette.  We continued to roll down the hill until, a little after 8:30 AM, we all confirmed that we had exceeded 360 kms and pulled over for one last rest.  As we rested, we saw another Fleche team of five cyclists go zooming by, and I recognized Tominaga-san as he yelled out a greeting.  At 9AM we entered the nearest convenience store, got one last receipt as proof of passage, and headed for Omi Hachiman Station on the Tokaido Line.  There we were met by the support car with Kawase-san and Kei-san, who managed to take all of our bikes and luggage to Kyoto and the location of the post-ride party.  The 3 riders hopped the train, changed lines at Kyoto Station, walked the short distance from Hanazono Station to the banquet hall, checked in at reception with our cards and receipts, enjoyed a hot spring bath, and went upstairs to the banquet hall for the big party.

At the banquet we were regaled with stories of tailwinds for those arriving from the West, rain and cold for those who came from the North, more suffering in the headwinds for others who, like us, came from the East.  We met the visiting riders from Taiwan, and I was glad to learn that Tominaga-san and Tachikawa-san both will join London-Edinburgh-London.  I certainly closed my eyes for a few minutes during the party, and when mine were open, I noted that Tanaka-san also dozed off.  The other team at our table looked remarkably well-rested.  ...  having started and finished almost a day earlier than us and then enjoyed a good night's sleep.  An interesting idea for next year.  Maybe we should plan a midnight-to-midnight ride, then a good sleep before attending a Noon party?

We made an odd team -- a mountain biker, two "normal" experienced Japanese road cyclists who are 15 years apart in age, and an overweight foreigner who climbs slowly and descents like a rocket (or at least a rock) -- but we made it through the event in good spirits.  And even though we did not train together, we did achieve the goals of the event as promoted by the Audax Club Parisien: "building a strong spirit of camaraderie, striving during 24 hours to achieve a common challenge and finally meeting and socializing with fellow randonneurs from across your country, region or province."
The headwind starts to take its toll.
Seems like it would make a nice annual tradition.


Japanese translation kindly prepared by Tanaka-san:


当初私はよく知った自転車乗りたち数人のチームに加わる約束をしました。そのうちの二人は昨年のRocky Mountain 1200を走り、一人は関東地区のブルベでよくお会いする方でした。しかし申し込み期間中、詳細なスケジュールが明らかになるにつれ、今週行われる九州ブルベと日程が被るために四人中二人が抜けてわれわれのチームは崩壊してしまいました。










風はわれわれのペースを劇的に落としました。われわれは最初のチェックポイントに予定より15分遅れて到着しました。本当に本当に一生懸命漕ぎましたが、2つ目のチェックポイントではもうさらに15分の遅れを取っており、 昼食をとるのにそこにとどまればさらに30分予定より遅れることになるでしょう。そして私たちはチームとしておかしな乗り方をしていました。私は上りでは後ろに下がり、下りでは(ブレーキを使わない限り)前に出ます。平坦路では時にはいっしょになって走ることが出来ましたが、しばしば風によって離されました。私が先頭になって振り返ると時として間隔が広がっていました。また、逆も然りでした。








私たちは変わったチームでした。マウンテンバイク乗り、二人の「普通の」経験のある15才歳の離れた日本人ロード乗り、そして体重過多の上りは遅いが下りはロケット(もしくは少なくとも岩)のように下る外人からなるチームです。しかし私たちはすばらしい精神でこのイベントを乗り越えました。そしてたとえわれわれがトレインを組めなかったにせよ、Audax Club Parisienが以下のように発起した通りわれわれはこのイベントにゴールしたのです: 「強い友情の精神を築き、共通の目的を達するために24時間がんばり抜き、最後に国・地域中からの仲間のランドヌールたちとおち会って交流する」

Tanaka-san's blog report on the event can be found here.

06 April 2013

Yamabushi/Shomaru ... Half-Fast?

Jerome has been very busy at work, and my work also has spilled into a number of weekends so it was for the first time in many weeks that we headed out together for a ride.  A major rain storm was forecast to start mid/late Saturday afternoon and go into Sunday, so we departed from recent tradition and rode on Saturday.

As we approached the Tamagawa, passing by the massive Tamagawa Rise condominiums south of Futako Tamagawa Station, we saw Ira Stevens and two women, Jan and Fumi, ready to start a ride.  I know Ira from the pool at Kinuta Park, where we met last year when I was training there and swerved into the wrong side of a lane, running directly into him and inspiring some mild invective.  He lives nearby and leads some of the "Half Fast Cycling" rides.  We were joined by two more riders (Chris and Barbara) up the river, and continued with them at a relaxed half-fast pace until they crossed the river to head out the Asagawa toward Hachioji area.
After a farewell photo, Jerome and I picked up the pace, a tailwind helping speed us toward Oume.  We were behind schedule a bit and the weather was threatening, so we bypassed Oume Station/Aurore Bakery and headed straight onto Nariki Kaido from Higashi Oume Station.  The area looked spectacular, with some sakura left and many other flowering trees and plants, the babbling brook at the base of the Tokyo Hill Climb course, and dry pavement, still.

We made better time than expected, and were up to the top of Yamabushi Pass, through the dip and up the short climb to Shomaru Pass.

We stopped at the Pass at "Okumura Chaya" for lunch.  We were the only customers in the place, and so were able to persuade the nice ladies there to step outside for a photo.  The older of the two said "obaasan de moushiwake nai, mo sugu 80 sai", roughly translates as "I apologize for being an old lady, I am nearly 80."  No apologies needed ... but the Japanese language lends itself to these sorts of statements.  Whenever you do not know what to say, best to apologize.

This view, of course, looks out to the East toward Saitama and northern Tokyo.  And that haze in the distance is ... not dust from China, but a line of rain clouds. Of course, it is the same view as once observed by the Showa Emperor and Empress Michiko, on an inspection tour of the realm.
We made it back down the hill and half way through Naguri before the line of showers hit.  Fortunately, the drenching rain lasted only 15-20 minutes, and had ceased when we emerged from the tunnel at Ozawa Pass and headed down the hill to Nariki.  The pavement was dry when we got back to Higashi Oume, but the real storm hit later on, and we slogged the last 80-90 minutes back in the wet.  The main storm brought a warm, humid rain, like the rainy season storms that come from the South in May, so we were not cold.  But the rain kicked up a lot of grime from the road, which seemed to end up all over me.

It was great to return to Chichibu and Yamabushi/Shomaru after far too long an absence, to get in a 150 km ride despite the rain, and to meet some of the Half Fast folks.