15 June 2014

The Great White Whale

Yamabushi Toge at dawn
Jerome has become focused, one might even say obsessed, with the challenge of the SR600 Fuji course.  He knows he is strong enough to do it.  After all, 86 randonneurs did so last year, and there are not 86 randonneurs in all of Japan stronger than Jerome.

But will he find the right time, with sufficient rest in advance, the right preparations, equipment and weather, in order to manage it all the way through in under 52 hours?  On our first try, he broke a spoke on a Mavic Ksyrium SSL rear wheel (the fat aluminum spokes that never break).  We adjusted the other spokes so the wheel was true enough to continue ... but he broke another spoke around Nobeyama/Kiyosato and the wheel became unrideable.  Last time, a Look Keo pedal broke on the climb up Shirane-san, leaving him nearly stranded there, the spindle jammed and unremovable from his crank.  When has a Look Keo pedal ever broken?  Will Jerome conquer this great challenge, Moby Dick to his Ahab?

This weekend, another try is underway.  He has been traveling recently to Hong Kong and Singapore on business, and returned to Japan last week, to announce he would make another attempt, reserving a hotel room in Hachioji near there the Takao start.  He told me he would start at 245AM from Takao.  The key is to get over Shirane-san before too late at night, and then over Sugadaira Kogen and to Ueno before sleeping around 24 hours from the start.  4 hours of rest sets up the possibility of another almost-24 hour effort through to the finish.

At this point Jerome does not bother to register with Audax -- the point for him is not an "official" completion, but an actual one.

I could not join the effort, but I wanted to try to help somehow, if only to get him started on the right track.  I agreed to meet him on Route 20 in front of his hotel in Hachioji at 215AM Saturday and--most important--to call him when I was 30 minutes away, so that he could wake and prepare to depart.

As usual, despite my best intentions I found it impossible to sleep before 10PM, and even then could do so only on the sofa in our living room.  At 1245AM, my son (visiting us and typically awake until much later) woke me.  I quickly changed and got onto the bicycle, already prepped for departure, and was cycling at 1:05AM.  By 1:45 I had reached Sekidobashi along the Tamagawa, and placed my "wake up call" to Jerome.

It was 2:05AM as I went through an area of Hachioji along the Asagawa where the paths and roads require crossing the river or moving onto through streets.  On the through street, as I approached a red light, a somewhat nasty taxi cab pulled in front of me and all the way to the left edge, blocking my passage.  I decided to cross into a side street where I knew he would not follow.  About a half kilometer later on a very dark stretch, as I was a few hundred meters before rejoining the well-lit main road, I hit a pothole.  I did not see it, despite decent front lighting.  Hissssss went my front tire tube.  Completely Flat in a few seconds.  A quick text to Jerome telling him I was held up, and then I found a good spot under a streetlight to swap in another tube.

A few minutes later I was on my way ... but the replacement tube lost air within 15 seconds or so.  Back off the bike, this time a thorough check of the inside of the tire and the rim before putting in my second spare tube.  And hands only, no tire levers to minimize the risk of damages to the tube during installation, ... but this one would not hold air either.  I did not even get back on the bike, as I could feel air hissing out around the base of the valve stem.  Defective (private label mail order) tubes!

I called Jerome and told him he should start without me.  I might not be able to help his effort (other than the wake up call), but there was no way I was going to let my tire tube problems hold up his SR600 attempt, even an unofficial attempt.  There was I sitting on the side of a dark road, thinking of my last early morning ride attempt a few weeks back and its premature end.  Would this be another bust?

I got out the tire patch kit -- rubber cement, sand paper, tire patches and some of the new patches with adhesive on the back already.  I struggled to find the holes in my 3 tubes.  The one that had blown in the pothole would not even fill with air, yet I could not find any visible hole, in the dark.  I cast it aside for now.  The second and third tubes seemed to have pinpricks near the valve base.  I affixed one of the new patches with pre-fixed adhesive.  The adhesive seemed weak -- maybe it has been in the patch kit for a year?  Or two or three or more?  Still, these were newer versions of the pre-glued patches.  The older ones were hopeless, and I remember being impressed with the new type when I got them -- looked like they might actually work.  Was there a "use by" date?  In any event, the first I tried would barely stick to the tube.  I pressed it with my hands for a minute or two, kneeding it a bit, then replaced the tube.  No luck, air rushed out.  I tried a second one.  This seemed stickier.  Put the tube back in tire again.  Still no luck as air leaked.  Tube out, I turned to the traditional patch.

First, I applied sand paper to clean the tube area around the hole that would be under the patch.  Then a generous glob of rubber cement spread over the same area, then only once the rubber cement dried I affixed the patch.  (That is the key -- the cement must dry first -- counterintuitive and so where newbies often go wrong). Then back in the tube.  Better than the last try ... but still did not hold air.  Upon removal and inspection, I saw that the patch was not entirely flat against the tube.  I tried again, a deep breath first.  This time it all worked.  The tire/tube held pressure.

Just to make sure decided to wait a few minutes. I patched the other tube with a pin prick hole near the valve.  I have no idea if it is effective, but at least it felt reassuring to know that I had a spare.  And the tube on the bike was still holding solid after a few minutes.

So 75 minutes after I stopped, I was back on the road.  An SMS from Jerome -- he was already in Oume and is changing a flat of his own.  But since he is riding a 600, he started with 3 spare tubes, and a patch kit.  No problem.
From my home to Takasaki, by 915AM
I skipped Takao and took Akigawa Kaido to join the SR600 course -- Takao Kaido then Takiyama Kaido, which becomes Route 411.  It is incredibly peaceful, cool, no traffic at all.  I had never noticed that the roads in this area are actually very, very nice.  Smooth pavement, tree-lined, nice hillsides.  I guess during the day the traffic had always crowded out these impressions.

After a brief stop at a 7-11 in Oume for a snack, I started along Nariki Kaido and left Tokyo for Saitama and Chichibu.  This road is beautiful, and there was enough light now so that I could start to see my surroundings, and still no traffic.
Nariki Kaido in Early Light -- 4:30~4:45AM -- sunlgiht visible on the hilltop
Moving at a decent clip, I made my way through Nariki, then Naguri, a next stop at the "magic fountain" to refill my bottles before climbing Yamabushi Pass.  Now there are locals out, taking their early strolls, with dogs, or to smoke a cigarette on a bridge overlooking the river.  The dogs here are not poodles or chihuahuas, but Japanese breeds.  I passed an elderly couple walking, no dog.

Naguri on the way to Arima and Yamabushi -- mist on hills in early light
It was 540AM by the time I reach the top of Yamabushi Pass.  On the climb I go steadily but am careful not to push myself too hard.
Alone at Yamabushi Pass - 540AM
Over the top and down the other side to Chichibu City, arriving at 615AM.  The ride so far has been magical.  Nariki and Naguri are green, water rushing from recent rains, no traffic, and mist in the hills.  The temperature?  On the climb I saw one temperature gauge showing 12 degrees C.  Soon thereafter another showing 16 degrees.  I was even chilly on the descent, at least for a few minutes until my Q36.5 Bolzano club jersey dried in the wind.  This is rare, cool weather for June in Kanto, a vestige of the rains that had passed through only 6-8 hours earlier.

After a convenience store breakfast at the "bike rack Lawson" along Route 299 in Chichibu City, I continued along the course toward Gunma.  This next stretch along local routes 41, then 13, then a new local road in Fujioka, has plenty of little hills.  I remember suffering up these hills on past brevets.  Now they seem neither long nor steep, nor difficult.  Why had I suffered? Too fast a pace?  Headwind? In any event, now it is easy to make decent time, not pushing but not dawdling, and eventually I am in the area of Fujioka south of Takasaki.

It is still between 8 and 9AM as I work toward Takasaki Station.  At the station, a temperature gauge now reads 25 degrees C, no doubt headed into the low 30s.  I pack my bike carefully, wash up a bit and change into "civilian" shorts and shirt before boarding the train back to Tokyo, arriving in Marunouchi an hour early for a lunch meeting.

Around 1130AM I receive a call from Jerome.  He slept for 2 hours and is about to climb up Route 18 to Usui Toge and Karuizawa.  Another text from him at 3PM asking confirmation of the SR600 time limit -- 52 hours.  620AM Monday morning.  Jerome mentions meeting The Russian (Laurent) who has done "my road" -- must mean Kurumazaka, then Jizo Passes and the Tsumagoi Panorama Line.

But he was only climbing up to Kusatsu in late afternoon, and his post mentions fatigue and a lack of training.  This is a bit ominous from the man who wears as a badge of pride having many years run the Kyoto mountain marathon with NO preparation.  And no word yet on Sunday morning.  Where is he? Will he make it?  Or does the white whale win another round?

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