30 April 2016

The Not-so-Secret "Secret" Control Points of the Beautiful Okayama 1200

Along the Sea of Japan north of Matsue
Jerome and I joined many friends old and new for the Okayama 1200 from April 23 to 26.

We arrived in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, on the 22nd, checked in to the Ivy Square hotel (which in May hosts the Education ministerial of the G-7 summit, as posters announced around the town and hotel grounds), and cycled over to registration and to joined a welcome pasta buffet dinner. Kurashiki is a tourist destination -- a historical merchant center with well-preserved buildings from pre-modern Japan.  The start of our ride would be in Hayashima, just a few kilometers to the Southeast.
G7 Education Ministerial meetings coming soon to Ivy Square Hotel - Kurashiki

There were only 60-70 participants, including around a dozen riders from overseas -- Seattle was most well represented, by Mark, Rick, Adam and Thai, Jan Erik came from Sweden, two from Australia (Peter Heal on his recumbent and also Warren), as well as several from Asia (e.g. Taiwan and Singapore).  Of course, Inagaki-san was there, head of Audax Japan, and Higuchi-san from our Fleche team out of Nagoya, and Hara-san from Tokyo, and there were many riders from western Japan.  But most of the hardcore Saitama members and their friends passed on this ride so they could do the 2400km "Bike Across Japan" from the southern tip of Kyushu to the northern tip of Hokkaido this coming week.
Despite the relatively small numbers, a ride of this length takes a lot of work to organize and pull off, and the Okayama team (Ms. Sawada and Mr. Yamaguchi), together with the many volunteers, did a great job.  (Special thanks to Maya Ide, Yutaka Moriwaki and other English speakers who looked after the foreign participants).

Waiting for Da Bra italian restaurant to open for our welcome party/early dinner

Jerome and I leave the Ivy Square hotel shortly after 3AM
Special briefing for the non-Japanese speaking riders 
Finally dawn on the first day of the ride -- already well into the route and taking the hills on a quiet road above the fray
I was a bit concerned about some of the routes we would take.  The pasta dinner was at a restaurant on the Route 2 bypass just east of Kurashiki, a congested, charmless stretch of highway, and my previous trip in this area had involved plenty of similarly crowded roads.  But I need not have worried.  We started at 4AM Saturday morning and were well into the countryside before most cars would be on the road.  We were briefly on crowded roads along the Japan Sea west of Tottori in the late evening, and again around Fukuyama and then approaching Kurashiki/Okayama again on the last day. But otherwise we were in low or VERY low traffic heaven.
Our route, starting and finishing in Hayashima SE of Kurashiki, SW of Okayama City
The route was difficult the first two days, with lots and lots of climbing -- over 11000 meters in total, and most of that over the first 700kms.  This was a ride where the key was to manage time carefully in order to make the cut-offs and get some sleep during the first 700-800 km.  Then it was possible to just slog it through the last third and still easily clear the time limits.
The Seto-Ohashi comes into view - further spans barely visible in the distance
“Ohashi"means "big bridge" and this one deserves the name. The longest double deck bridge in the world at 13 kms.
At the base of the Seto Ohashi.
Many spectacular views from elsewhere of this seemingly endless steel bridge
PC1 - cruelly placed at the top of a nasty hill
Then again, there was a nice view from the hilltop, amidst the (rare for Japan) olive trees
The route had much beauty -- mountains, sea coasts, and traditional villages.  It also had lots of variety and covered a big part of western Japan - Okayama, a sliver of Hyogo, Tottori, Shimane, Hiroshima, and even one island within Ehime Prefecture.  I thought the course was especially nice in that it was really very representative of what it is like to ride a bicycle long distance in Japan. We passed plenty of places I would love to go back to, including:

--Hiruzen Highlands area with its ski areas and highlands reminiscent of Nagano and soaring cycling roads;
--Matsue castle, and the nearby areas of the Japan Sea with its emerald blue water;
--the beautiful stretch of islands and bridges starting from Kure and extending to Okamura Port (NOT to be confused with the much more famous and heavily used "shimanami kaido" stretch of islands and bridges between Onomichi and Imabari); and
--Fukiya village on a hilltop in Takanashi City, Okayama, with its Edo-style houses.
Convenience store with in-store seating!  Becoming more widespread, thank goodness.
I sit with Jerome, Inagaki-san, Peter H. (Aussie colors visible), Mark T., Yoshida-san and others.

One of many, many no traffic stretches as we travel from Setonaikai to Nihonkai

Local diary products at a PC on day two in the Hiruzen highlands
Another empty road - in Hiruzen highlands
I was too rushed for time to get many flower photos this year ... but the flowers were everywhere
There were a few odd things about the course design, which could easily be fixed on a subsequent edition.

First, there were several places where there seemed an obvious shortcut to the route planned by the organizers.  On the climb out of Kurayoshi the second morning, for example, Jerome and I passed an exhausted looking Japanese rider as we neared the top.  We came upon the same rider again 15-20 minutes later as he came out of a short-cut.  He mumbled something about "mis-course" but it was pretty clear he was tired, worried about the cut off, and taking the shortest, easiest route he could find. There were plenty of other similar opportunities, including some major ones to save both distance and climbing.

Of course, a few well-placed "secret" checkpoints will diminish the risk of someone attempting to cheat and take a shorter route.  Unfortunately, the Okayama organizers did not seem to understand the meaning of a "secret" control.  They had some controls marked on the cue sheet and in the brevet card as "secret", but the locations were announced in advance, and so these were really just like other controls.  I appreciate the kindness of the "secret" controls being identified in advance, but I wish the course would not have created such obvious opportunities for riders to cut corners.
Mt. Daizen from near the village of Yoshihara

mountain sakura in bloom
After passing Yonago, on a flat stretch along the "nakaumi"
Jerome enjoys our green tea rest stop

The tea master at work

Higuchi-san comes up to me as I snap a photo

Passing Matsue castle
More Matsue 
NW of Izumo at a cape/turnaround checkpoint - a Eurus energy project

Again for this checkpoint the organizers sent us up a nasty short hill for a view

Dusk near Izumo

Early morning Day 3 - cold and tired, and on the way to Onomichi, where we would find a nice checkpoint
we would pass through twice, both going to and coming from Kure and our loop out onto the islands of the inland sea.
... this checkpoint also at the top of a nasty hill, almost 200 meters above sea level.
Lots of shipbuilding on the inland sea - this plant in Mihara even though the company name is
Imabari Shipbuilding (named for a city on Shikoku just across the inland sea from here).
The only other issue was the first "overnight" control with possibility for riders to sleep. It was really too cold in the sleeping area, and there were no blankets provided.  If I had been warned in advance, I would have sent something warm in my drop bag.  As it turned out, some riders were sleeping in a different building toward the back which was heated.  Jerome found this and we moved there and salvaged 90 minutes of sleep from what otherwise would have been a disaster ... and doubtless was for some folks.

Jerome waited for me repeatedly during the ride, and we ended up doing probably half the ride together (with him pulling 40% and me 10% of the total ride).  The other half we were not far apart -- usually with him needing to wait for me at a PC or hilltop.  My right shifter experience serious problems about 825 kms into the ride.  Even after opening it up and cleaning it as best I could, my innermost rear cog and the 4 smallest outer cogs were not functional.  As a result, my top speed on the flats was significantly reduced.  Still, the timing was about right, since I was already done with 80%+ of the climbing and I could not sustain much more than 25 kph on the flats anyway on the homeward leg.

Hawaii? Okinawa?  Actually no. - an island in Kure City, Hiroshima

The sun fades and sky gets deeper and deeper shades

Anyway, no more time now, but it was a memorable ride.  I needed to rush back to Tokyo on Tuesday evening for a big work event on Wednesday, and a full day on Thursday.  That detracted from the experience a bit, but still it was great to be able to do this so early in the season.
Last morning

resting rider feet in view

Fukiya village, Takanashi city

Wow! Typical $7.50 lunch (tip and tax included) in the Japaense countryside, just a few kms down the hill from Fukiya village at a "teishokuya" (cafeteria)! 840 yen special.