30 July 2016

At Last - Hokkaido 1200

Jerome resting on day 3 during a long, hot, uphill, headwind stretch
It seems like so long ago.  On July 15-18, Jerome and I joined many friends on the Hokkaido 1200, getting successful "revenge" for the event in 2014 that was cancelled mid-ride due to a typhoon.

The event was only 2 weeks ago, but in this world of instant social media and a 24-hour news cycle, does anyone still care? We've been through two major U.S. political party conventions, a serious cycling accident of Tanigaki-san, the only current Japanese cabinet minister who is a devoted road cyclist (and who, based on news reports, seems to have spinal cord injuries), and various terrorist attacks and other mass killings --including the shocking mass knife killing of 19 disabled people at the Tsukui Yamayurien facility--which I ride by whenever I make the Takao/Lake Tsukui loop.  Of course, Inagaki-san has already completed an SR600 since Hokkaido; Jerome has gone to France and is already back in Japan; and Vincent is back in North America, but seems to be in Kamloops, British Columbia instead of Seattle, I assume for the Rocky Mountain 1200 this weekend--a(nother?) Can-Am medal awaits.

Well, I am sorry for the delayed report - I was too busy upon returning to town to sit down and write this. But the event was memorable enough (it was a 1200, after all!) to merit some figurative ink even two weeks later.  Indeed, it would do so even two months or two years later.  I really enjoyed the ride. Jerome grumbled a lot, but I think he did too.

We flew to Sapporo/Chitose on "Vanilla Air", an "LCC" or low cost carrier -- the kind where the flight attendants check you in, then change into cleaning clothes to clean the airplane (accompanied by regular announcements from one harried staffer about how boarding has been delayed), then change yet again to sell snacks to the customers. Vanilla is a least partly owned by ANA, and so they seem to have done everything possible to send the message "this is a cheap service and you get what you pay for".
I can imagine endless Japanese meetings where the ANA (and Vanilla) service is broken down into thousands of constituent parts, all with the idea to avoid cannibalizing ANA, while still making Vanilla tolerable, barely.  It starts with the 600 meter walk from the Narita Terminal 2 train station to the LCC Terminal.  Then the terminal itself has a linoleum floored food court, bare bones industrial style design, and track and field markings to tell you where to proceed.  The legroom on the plane is truly minimal - knees wedged in.  And of course, I sat next to a couple with an infant, who cried loudly the entire flight.
LCC terminal

LCC legroom
But then again, the food court was clean, the industrial style design is really not bad, in some ways nicer than the main terminals, the plane flies at the same speed as an ANA flight, and the flight was relatively short so neither jammed knees nor screaming infant could dampen my spirits as we disembarked to a beautiful day in Sapporo.
Cool industrial escalator
Of course, after completing registration and bike inspection, we made the tourists' pilgrimage to the Sapporo Beer Garden and ate Genghis Khan and drank beer.  All you can eat and all you can drink for 120 minutes.  It was a lot of lamb (and beer).  Guaranteed power for the next morning!
At the Sapporo community dome - location of registration and start
I try using the stretchy commemorative sack as ... a cap.  Works good.  Maya seems in a good mood.
Site of our pre-ride feast.
50th anniversary locale for 50th birthday boy.
The weather forecast looked really good -- so good I did not bring or attach my clip on fenders.  And even though we did get some rain on the latter part of the ride, it was never heavy.  We started at 530AM (or a few minutes later) on a beautiful Friday morning, and were out of town before any serious morning traffic.  

The route showed a long early stretch, from around the 15km to the 80km mark, with no convenience stores or food likely available.  Indeed, we were on a road in a valley with extremely light traffic and a mix of farms, woods and streams.  Really idyllic -- though a bit too much like rural France/Bretagne for Jerome's liking.  

About 25-30 kms into the ride, a long string of Japanese riders from the 540AM start group passed us.  I thought, great, a chance to hop on and go fast without effort.  Jerome, meanwhile, rode back up along the group and pulled them the next 10kms or more.  "Why did you do that?" I asked.  "I felt good" ... the answer.  Really not the wisest use of one's energy, but typical Jerome.
Jerome pulls

No traffic on this route!

Dr. Vinnie trades medications with Susan
My first front flat tire.
Anyway, by the middle of the day we were all riding at slightly different speeds, passing each other and leapfrogging at stops.  The heat was getting intense, and Jerome was suffering.  I got my first flat tire.  

We go ... somewhere up there.
Somewhere on the long climb of the day (to around 850 meters elevation), I pulled off to rest and Vincent passed.  Jerome was nowhere to be seen.  As I descended the other side, I saw Vinnie's bike outside a post office -- he must have gone inside for the restroom?  I pulled off at a community center down the road and asked politely for some water (my bottles immediately refilled by some middle school girls at the instruction of a parent or teacher).  Anyway, further on down the gradual decline I got my second flat tire, also on the front wheel.  What was wrong?  Was there a hidden piece of glass or metal?  I could not find it.  Was there some exposed sharp edge in the rim?  I did not know.  As I was changing the tire, along came Vincent and Jerome.  They pulled off.
Somewhere near my second flat tire ...
BOTH reported intestinal troubles.  Vincent upper (vomiting everything up) and Jerome lower (a serious case of the "runs").  They ran a few meters into the woods and did their respective things. We must have looked a sorry group, one vomiting, a second shitting, and the third trying to figure out why he kept getting gradual flats.  Anyway, we mounted up and continued.

Vincent (a doctor) was worried about dehydration and recovery.  Jerome was talking with a Japanese rider (Tamagawa Audax) who offered some anti-diarrheal medicine.  We made it to another town with a Seicomart convenience store, and Jerome took the medicine. Vinnie was suffering and did not even try yet to eat or drink.  We pressed on.  I was in the lead at the next PC, but Jerome pulled up, then as we were about to leave Vincent came in looking like death warmed over.  He ordered me to buy him some warm tea (and get him his receipt), then lay down in the parking lot to sleep.
Convenience store having trouble keeping up with 200 riders' trash
After another climb and descent, I was ahead of Jerome for the time being as we joined the main road toward Kitami from the west.  5 minutes on it and ... my third front flat.  Jerome came by as I was trying to change my tube and stopped to help. This time, I swapped out the tire as well, for a new Conti 4 (or is it "All") Season.  No more flats the next 900 kms!  Jerome was recovering, and we limped in to the Kitami overnight checkpoint really only an hour or so later than I had hoped.  

Of course, that meant an hour less sleep.  After less than 4 hours, we were up, eating breakfast, and by 440AM were on the road to Bihoro, then to Bihoro Pass.  There is (supposed to be) a great panorama view here.  It looked like this:

At least this time there was no typhoon.

Anyway, after the descent from the pass, the next stretch to Betsukai (or "Bekkai" as I heard some call it) was a series of rural rolling hills. 

The Bekkai control was another place to sleep ... but no time.  We would try to do so on the return leg, and needed to get to Nemuro and Point Nosappu, the turnaround.  Vincent arrived after us and wanted to sleep.  I went ahead.  Jerome forced Vincent to ride on an hour or two later.  The ride out to Nosappu was really nice -- almost no trees with ocean to the south and a relatively narrow spit of land a few kms wide and 20-30 kms long.  The weather was still great.  

Beautiful out near Nemuro

Japanese, English ... and Russian on the signs!

Heading from Nemuro toward Nosappu, I could see many riders already on the return.

Toilet building shaped like local crab delicacy.

Glad I got to see the eastern tip this time! It was just beautiful on a perfect day.
At Nosappu I slept briefly and waited for Jerome and Vincent.  A phone call from Jerome woke me after only 15-20 minutes - Jerome said they were an hour away still.  Sleep interrupted, I wandered around aimlessly and eventually mounted up and started the trip back. ...  and 10 minutes down the road there they were.  They must have been a lot closer, and I must have wasted plenty of time getting going.  I was happy to see them, so I turned around and rode back to Nosappu.  Jerome and I had local seafood across from the checkpoint, while Vincent slept. Finally he would catch up on his sleep, leaving Nosappu well after us.
Near the end of Day 2, a beautiful sky
Jerome and I plodded back to Betsukai then slept.  I wanted to push on, but Jerome said "no, lets sleep", and I was too weak willed by now to resist.  Vincent passed while we slept and we did not see him again until the finish -- which he reached 5 hours ahead of Jerome and more than 6 ahead of me. A powerful comeback.  

Anyway, after less than 3 hours or so we had to leave Betsukai.  I insisted -- it would be a VERY long third day to Lake Kanayama, so we needed to get back to Kitami by midday.  The sleep had interrupted my rhythm.  I should have pressed on without resting at Betsukai, since now I was having real difficulty getting going. Borderline stomach issues. No power.  We rested at the first convenience store in a tiny outpost along the road.

Then back over some of the rollers, another convenience store stop, and it was on the approach to Bihoro Pass again, Jerome now ahead of me.  The panorama from Bihoro?  This time the view looked like this -- pretty much as 24 hours before when we had passed it outbound.
Bihoro panorama again!
Between Bihoro Pass and Bihoro city

Anyway, we made it back to Kitami and slept a bit more, then headed out in the early afternoon, a LONG stretch remaining.  Now, a few kilometers after we saw a fox by the edge of the road, Jerome's rear tube flatted, we replaced it, and then it quickly flatted again.  Then, after 20 kms of tailwind but intense heat, we got some water, then started a long, gradual climb into a stiff headwind.  The headwind was brutal and cruel at this point in the ride.  We rested by the roadside.  
We stopped here and the proprietor sold us a 2 liter bottle of water from inside -- saving us from buying 4 x 500ml bottles out of his vending machines.  Typical Japanese hospitality.
It seemed like we would never get to the pass at the top of the climb.  But we did, and the signage suggested it is extremely cold here in winter.

Then it was a quick trip down to Rikubetsu and on to Ashoro, mostly flat and downhill.  The rain started at Ashoro.  The restaurant we had planned to visit was closed (only open for lunch), so we ate outside the Lawson store nearby, under its roof.  
There were flowers everywhere ... wish I had gotten better pictures of them!
The next stretch was the hardest test of the ride. After an evening of wet and endless zigs and zags across south-central Hokkaido, we finally reached Shintoku.  It must have been nearly midnight.  Smarter riders had secured lodgings in Shintoku or before, and would only climb Karikachi Pass at first light.  Jerome had met Hinoue-san from Osaka and was riding with him.  I passed them at the bottom of the Karikachi climb as their group was in preparation. I plodded up.  I rested and walked repeatedly, really out of gas, but needing to get to around 650 meters elevation.  It was cold, windy, raining and dark.  The scene at the top was a bit chaotic, a few groups or riders getting ready to descend.  One rider was huddled in a tunnel about 150 meters from the summit shivering under an emergency (space) blanket. I rode back down and told him that he really should go into the restroom entryway at the top - glass sliding door, warm, dry, much better than the tunnel.  He seemed grateful for the suggestion and gathered his things as I headed back up.

Anyway, the descent was miserable.  Cold and wet the first part, I had all my clothing on and was shivering.  Then when I got a few hundred meters elevation lower, and it warmed up a wee bit, I started to fall asleep on the bike.  Numerous times I caught myself before falling over, rested a bit, nibbled something, and continued.  Then again my eyes would close and I would start to veer as I put a foot down and braked.  Rest, and again stop.  It seemed it took forever -- maybe longer than the climb! But all I needed to do was get down the hill and I would be at the Lake Kanayama checkpoint and really able to sleep.  For some reason no other riders were following me on the descent.  Where was everyone?  Ahead?  Behind?  Asleep?

Finally, I got to a 7/11.  A young guy on a motorcycle who I thought I had seen near the pass was eager to talk.  He had read about this 1200 km in the local press and was amazed to see riders trying to clear the pass in the middle of the night.  He was trying to cheer on and cheer up riders.  I had seen him on the climb, and assumed he was a staff member checking up on us.  Nope, just a volunteer.  He gave me a cup of hot cocoa using the 7/11's thermos.

Another rider rolled in, I forget the name but he said he was from Kawasaki and was riding a yellow frame. I insisted we ride together to Lake Kanayama.  We talked most of the way and I could stay awake.

After a few hours sleep at Lake Kanayama, it was time to get back up and on the bike.  The last day felt like ... well, it felt like just slogging along to get to the finish. Jerome and Hinoue left with me, but they soon went ahead.  The first stretch was nice, over Kanayama Pass and down to Shimukappu, then on.  
But Route 237 to Biratori was crowded with trucks, and the rain returned at least briefly.  It was already early afternoon when I left the PC near Mukawa to head NW toward Chitose and Sapporo.
On Route 237 ... heavy traffic at times.
"don't leave garbage -- the bears will get it"

Lots of people ignore the sign! ... but no bears were in evidence.

At least it was flat now, and we rode through quite nice areas with lots of horse farms -- thoroughbreds, the equivalent of Kentucky "blue grass" country, in Hokkaido! Who knew?

Eventually, we returned to Chitose, and Eniwa, and heavy Sapporo-area traffic.  It was not pleasant riding a bypass with heavy traffic.  Then as we made it into the southern Sapporo suburbs, ... a sharp left turn and we headed AWAY from town up a 20km slog to the SW into a park area.  I arrived more than an hour after Jerome.  Lots of smiles and congratulations!  And some nice BBQ grilled seafood ... before the rain came back. Mmmm.  The 18th was Jerome's 50th birthday, and it would have been nice to celebrate properly. But it was already well after 9PM by the time we left the "goal" area, we needed to ride all the way back to Sapporo--25 kms in light showers, then first 8-10kms on a dark country descent.  Later, we did go out in town for food and drink, together with Vincent, and returned to our hotel through a cold, soaking downpour.  Then after way too little sleep, it was time to disassemble and pack the travel bike, race to the airport, and come back to Tokyo.

The staff were great, the course was mostly very nice (and not as hard as Okayama), and I saw some areas that were new to me and to which I would love to return.  And I cannot imagine there is any other part of Japan where a 1200km ride would be tolerable in the July heat.  Maybe some shorter rides in the high country of Nagano, but nothing more than a few 100 kms.  Hokkaido has its unique charms.

I would have loved to sleep another day.  As it was, I slept on the airplane despite wedged knees.  I slept on the Skyliner back to Tokyo.  And I slept in my office in between meetings later in the day.  Not enough.  Finally, after 2 weeks, I am just about caught up.

13 July 2016

From Friday -- Hokkaido 1200

Tomorrow I go to Hokkaido with Jerome (and many other friends) for the early Friday morning start of the Hokkaido 1200, Asia's most storied 1200 kilometer Audax event.  This is a "revenge" effort after the 2014 version was cancelled mid-event due to road closures from a typhoon.  This time (hope I do not jinx it) the weather forecast looks much better.  Stay tuned.  The blog is about to come back to life.  And I hope not as a zombie!