15 April 2018

Spring is Sprung! 4/14 AJ Tamagawa 300km Brevet

In Gunma on Route 299, between Kanna Town and Ueno-mura
I was really looking forward to yesterday's April 14 brevet. This type of event, after all, was the reason I joined the AJ Tamagawa chapter of Audax Japan.
-- A start and finish about a 35-minute spin from my home.
-- That would take me on familiar, but beautiful roads I do not see often enough.
-- That gets out of Tokyo before the traffic, and returns after.
-- With a tough, rewarding first half ... and an easier, forgiving second half.
-- In a beautiful season for this part of the world (and, as it turned out, with ideal cool, cloudy but never cold cycling weather -- the kind of weather in which world records are set (by those in the shape to do so).
I was not disappointed!!!
At the start area at Futako Tamagawa ... last minute repairs to a randonneuring bike?
Or just one of many abandoned mama-chari?
Our route -- clockwise, out through the mountains, back on the plains
We started a few minutes after 6AM. (I was in the second wave of starters, officially slated for 6:10AM, in fact a bit earlier). Another group would start at 7AM. 90 people had signed up, but there were 25 DNS's, according to the staff. I guess the forecast for afternoon and evening rain scared people away?
In any event, I was the first rider to go through "bike check" for the second wave, and was off. Within 45 minutes, I passed a few of the riders who had left 10 minutes earlier. Around Tachikawa, our route left the river and switched to some major roads -- roads Jerome likes but I usually try to avoid. Fortunately, traffic was still light.
On Nariki Kaido. Flowers and flowering trees.
At Higashi Oume Station, we entered the Nariki Kaido, the cyclists' most well-known route into Chichibu. After several short climbs and 3 tunnels, I was in Naguri and slowly ascending the valley that ends at the base of Yamabushi Pass -- all very well-known, rewarding territory for a road cyclist day trip from Tokyo. Then, a quick water stop at the "holy fountain" (our name for the shrine 1-2 kms from the base of Yamabushi).
The "holy fountain" -- delicious water, and free
Looking toward Yamabushi from the holy fountain - no cars even at 830AM.
Looking back from the holy fountain ... an Audax rider in the distance - no cars
Here, a few riders passed me, ... and a couple more on the climb. I am overweight and not as strong as in some years. I really needed this event for training, and I was not surprised that I struggled a bit on the climbs. Then again, I made it, and what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. If I can get in some decent GW rides in series, keep swimming on weekdays, and then make it through the Chubu Audax 400 next month ... I just may be back in shape.
Hairpin turn - steepest section on the Yamabushi climb.
Spectacular new buds and light green leaves on the adjacent slope, even on a cloudy morning.
Anyway, from the top of Yamabushi I was down and at the river in Chichibu in no time, it seemed. From 625m elev. to 190m ... the low point between Yamabushi and 800m Elev Shigasaka Pass.
The Arakawa, early on its journey from mountains to Tokyo Bay.
I remember the first time I made it to Chichibu by bicycle, back in the Positivo Espresso heyday. It was a hot day, and the town seemed dusty and downtrodden. Not yesterday! The roads have been repaved (including a formerly nasty, bumpy, even dangerous stretch of Route 299 coming into town from the East), pedestrian areas widened, historical buildings fixed up, and even some convenience stores have bike racks (and inside seating). The town looks, well, worth stopping over sometime to spend an afternoon and night, and getting to know a bit instead of just riding through. Of course, it still has the lovely hilltop "Muse" park across the river, and it still is a gateway to many mountains and rivers.
Route 299 between Ogano and Shigasaka Pass - VERY light traffic.
An example of the typical farmer's garden on this road.
And we saw lots and lots of small solar farms, even more, and larger, later on around Tomioka and Fujioka.
After Chichibu, we stayed on Route 299. Of course, the only thing that remains the same about the road at that point is its Route number. Once past Ogano ... just a few kilometers west of Chichibu city, the traffic volume drops to near zero. The climb up Shigasaka Pass was tough, for tired legs and an overweight body, but beautiful.
From the Shigasaka Climb
From the Shigasaka top
Entering Gunma, finally
Then it was down the hill to Kanna, past the dinosaur exhibits, and onto the grinding 0, 1, 2% uphill to the west toward Uenomura. This area is known as the site (up on one of the mountains) of the crash of a JAL 747 jumbo in 1985. But I know it for its lovely, peaceful nature. My favorite stop is the "Kawa no Eki" (a play on the typical "Michi no Eki") at the west end of the town, where one can sit and watch the river from an amphi theater, bamboo on the opposite bank. I bought some "tako yaki" to refuel a bit for the climb to the entrance of Yu-no-Sawa (湯の沢) Tunnel, at 710meters elevation.
On the short (3km) climb to the entrance to the 3km+ tunnel from Uenomura to Nanmoku/Shimonita
Once in the tunnel, the grade turned into a descent, losing at least 50-75 meters elevation in the 3km tunnel. The descent continued after the north exit, and it was a quick descent to Nanmoku and the next checkpoint at a beautiful "michi no eki".
Beautiful "Michi No Eki Oasis Nanmoku "with delicious breads for sale
And lots of vegetables too ... alas no room to carry them home by bicycle
I bought some delicious dark bread, filled with nuts and other goodies, weighty. I gave away part of it, ate part of it, and took the rest with me (where a few bites at a time helped keep me fueled the remainder of the ride.

By the time I left the Nanmoku checkpoint, it was almost 3PM. I was only 1 hour ahead of the cut off for that point, shockingly slow, with half the distance left! If I was done with the climbing, the weather forecast for the rest of the ride had looked grim. We were about to head east along Route 254, with a stiff headwind predicted. Then sometime around 5 to 7 PM, the rains were supposed to it.

In fact, over the next stretch the winds were light to non-existent so I could make good time. And the rain held off to the finish. If the scenery was boring after dark, at least I was riding many roads I knew reasonably well, or at least could recall having ridden sometime in the past, if not in a few years. That really helped in the dark. By the time we headed downriver from Oume again, the winds had picked up into a swirling gust. At first, this was a crosswind. But then, it became mostly a tailwind and pushed me the last 20-25 kms home. This video from near Sekidobashi (where I stopped for the last of the bread) gives some idea, though it was actually taken during a "lull" in the gusts:
As I munched on my bread, I saw two riders zoom by. They were gone long before I mounted up, but I thought (maybe, just maybe, I can catch them). Sure enough I could finally see them and made it through the same traffic light (barely) at Tamagawaharabashi, and was only 75-100 meters back passing the Keio Oval and as the road bends left. Then there is a right turn at a traffic signal.  They were stuck behind cars waiting at the light. I crossed the road, so that when the light turned green, I could use the crosswalk and immediately turn right. I did so and was off with a zoom. I had passed them without even figuring out who it was ... immediately, I thought, perhaps I should have been more social and joined them for the ride in? But with a tailwind, and my eye on the clock, trying to get to the goal within 17 hours, I felt not a moment to lose.

AJ Tamagawa had commandeered a room in small structure in Futako for the finish. It was not easy to find ... for a newby. Only one Audax PBP reflective vest hanging outside in the dim of a streetlight, and a couple bikes inside the fence, gave it away. Precious minutes lost finding it ... so a 17hr 02min finish -- plenty of time given the 20-hour cutoff, but not fast enough to do really long events (600, 1000, 1200) and get enough sleep/recovery during the event.

The check-in building was little more than a shed, but there was space for us to check in, plenty of light and warmth, and a place to sit and discuss the ride and get some small snacks and a cup of tea. I rode this event alone pretty much the entire way -- so I was glad to chat with some people I had passed, or who had passed me. Eventually the two riders I had passed came in ... and one was the tiny woman rider from Kansai who had zipped through the Isabella Byrd series last year, riding some with Jerome and me on the 600k leg. Sure enough, she had started at 7AM, so instead of finishing 5-10 minutes behind me, was actually 45-55 faster. Many of the others at the finish are familiar faces ... but none who I know well.

Jerome missed the event, returning from a business trip Saturday evening. So as I was eating a late lunch, I got an SMS from him:  he was 100kms into the ride and on Shigasaka!  As I write this, he is well over 200 kms and heading through Saitama toward Oume, and on a pace for a 14 hr ride.

06 April 2018

FOR SALE -- Renovo Firewood test bike

Renovo Firewood 55cm virtual seat tube, Ultegra Di2 10spd electronic shifting,
Avid BB-7 mechanical disks, Velocity Aileron wide rims
[NOTE: I have accepted an offer for the bike and, assuming all goes to plan, it will be with its new owner the week of May 7.]

As some of you know, I got three Renovo wood-framed bicycles when the manufacturer of these beautiful machines came to Tokyo from Portland, Oregon in 2015.

I kept the largest framed one for my own use, and have enjoyed riding it on many long rides in the intervening three years, including 400 and 600 km brevets, and last year 1420 kms of the Tohoku Isabella Byrd "Unbeaten Tracks of Japan" series.

The other two Renovo bikes went to C Speed where my friend Hiroshi made them available for test rides and for sale. He sold one (the "Pursuit" road bike model) to a customer, and eventually returned the other, a longer chainstay, disk-brake long-ride 55cm (virtual seat tube) model, to me (called the "Firewood"). This frame is a bit large for 90%+ of Japanese male cyclists and 98% of Japanese women cyclists.

Well, the bike was ridden once over the past year by my son when he joined the Tokyo Cranks coffee ride when in town on vacation, but otherwise it has been hanging, indoors, on a rack.

Now that I have settled from my move, and am done with my February-March travel, it is time to see if anyone wants to buy it. You can find many photos and description of the components here (in Japanese -- 日本語) .

It is a thing of beauty and a joy to ride! It has wide (700x32), durable treaded Michelin "City" tires (with reflective stripes) that are great for commuting and rough roads. It has plenty of room for fenders, racks, lights, or can be kept as a pure road machine for rides under blue skies.  The main question is whether to ride it, or to hang it on the wall as a work of art. I say -- BOTH!

I actually would prefer somewhat lighter, more supple tires -- which will make it very fast. The wood frame has a very "lively" feel, combining the best features of steel/titanium and vibration damping better than carbon. The manufacturer offered a 10-year guarantee back in 2015, recently increased to "lifetime".

I would take JPY400,000 (no consumption tax); plus the cost of a Di-2 charger box (I only have one charger, for two bikes so will need to buy you a separate one unless you already have one) and replacement bar tape (the current tape is worn). And if you want me to change out the Michelin City tires for lighter, supple tires, I can get those -- or can offer 700x28 Schwalbe Durano, or used (but still rideable) lightweight Grand Bois 700x32 tires. Then again, the reflective tires are safe for city riding!

JPY400,000 is a less than I paid, and less than Hiroshi was asking (JPY450,000 plus tax). The list price of the most similar models in the current Renovo catalogue would be anywhere from $6,500~$10,000, plus wait time, plus shipping. (The current Renovo line does not include exactly this frame, but the lower-end John Day model with Ultegra Di-2 would cost $6495, and the high end Glenmorangie Dura Ace Di-2 would cost $10,000. Then again, the Glenmorangie is made from staves of a whiskey cask for a beautiful Scotch single malt ... so it may be worth a bit more).

For me, this was never a "for profit" venture -- just an idea to get myself one of the bikes at a deep discount, help Hiroshi with a potential new business, and tie up with a Portland venture that offers something uniquely beautiful to the world.

The bike is available by appointment for test ride in Takanawa, Minato-ku. Contact me via FB messenger or Skype (david.g.litt) if questions.

02 April 2018

Flèche Kumamoto 2018 - Back in the Saddle

From the "shimanami kaido" bicycle route.

I've had a bit too much travel and not nearly enough riding in February and March, so I was very happy to start (again) the process of getting in shape for rides later this year and beyond.

More from the shimanami kaido -- climbing to the Shimanami Ohashi, the largest and longest of the bridges.
This bicycle entrance ramp -- with its own loops and reinforced concrete supports a hundred meters up -- must be the most expensive bicycle ramp in the world, ever.
The annual flèche nationale in Japan is patterned after the Flèche Velocio and not to be confused with the Flèche Wallonne. Of course, "flèche" means "arrow" in French, so these are all point-to-point "one way" cycling events! The Flèche Velocio format requires 3-5 persons to ride together, on a pre-agreed route, over 24 hours, at least 360 kms. All teams converge on a finish location, and hold a party to welcome Spring and the real beginning of the year's cycling adventures.
Looking down the slopes of Mt. Aso -- which is mostly just a huge open crater, the "mountain"
being the edges of the caldera. The largest active volcano in the world.
Our "regular" Flèche team, Messrs. Tanaka (team leader), Kozakai and Higuchi, of Chubu Audax, joined by Jerome and I, had planned to join the Kumamoto-sponsored Flèche in 2016. The Kumamoto earthquake -- a week before -- led to cancellation of that event, so we planned a "revenge" entry this year.

Our route was ambitious, starting with the best-known cycling course in Japan, the "Shimanami-Kaido", across islands and bridges from Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture to Imabari in Ehime Prefecture (on Shikoku), and ending by traversing Mt. Aso on Kyushu. Many tourists will enjoy a weekend riding the 75km Shimanami Kaido course, stopping on an island at an inn for the night. Of course, we did it faster, started at 9AM, and were past the last bridge and on the western outskirts of Imabari around 1230PM, in time for lunch. Still, with fresh legs,* beautiful weather, and spectacular flowering trees we could relax, take it all in, and stop for plenty of photos.
Arrival in Imabari -- everyone looking and feeling strong!
*Okay, Jerome's legs may not have been fresh, since he rode his bike a good part of the way from Nagoya (as far as Himeji) the day before. But the rest of us had fresh legs.
Higuchi-san and I on the ferry to the start
Jerome, Kozakai-san and other cyclists on the short ferry from Onomichi
Looking back at Onomichi
Early in the ride.
We stop for some Sakura pics
The first bridge is the only one with an under-bridge bike/moped route. The least nice.
We ride together.
An early attempt to stop Jerome's derailleur from rubbing.
Sakura! A few days earlier or later ... would be totally different. Timed perfectly this year!
Sakura and Bridge
These islands are full of shipbuilders and dry docks. The blue hull in the distance is under construction.
More sakura!
Descending the bicycle ramp into Imabari -- more shipbuilding here.
On the edge of Imabari, we ate at a little cafeteria with "teishoku" (set meals) for 600 yen each. The place was full of younger men "sagyoufuku" (work uniforms) when we arrived, even on a Saturday, so we knew it would offer decent "cost/performance", if lacking in refined taste. They were nice to us as obvious outsiders, and gave us some free sets of photo postcards of the Shinanami Kaido (that i guess have been sitting around some years as the photos are starting to fade a bit).
Dog looking contented soaking up the sunshine.
The server also seemed to pack a huge amount of rice into my rice bowl. I made the mistake of eating nearly the full bowl, as well as a "nanban" chicken fried dish, and regretted it after about 15 minutes back on the bike. Come to think of it, this is a classic "first day" problem for me on Audax events -- stomach troubles after the FIRST real meal while riding. My digestive system just does not handle it well. In fact, I think I can remember similar issues ... general unease, bloating, bordering on nausea but not quite, as long as I don't push too hard ... on past Flèche events. I was fine as long as we were just cruising along on the flats, but not good if I pushed it.  Or was it my weight -- at least 5% more than on prior flèche attempts -- that caused difficulties?  Anyway, I recovered, eventually and then was fine. My digestive system adjusts and on a multi day ride rarely complains at all after the first day -- in fact, if anything it seems to be resilient and do better than normal after the first 12 hours of riding have passed, as if quickly remembering the hundreds of thousands of years when humans engaged in very strenuous activity their entire waking hours, rather than being desk jockeys.

Anyway, we continued along the NW coast of Shikoku. We had ridden less than 80 kms at lunch but needed to get to 208 kms to catch our ferry from Mizaki at the western tip of Shikoku to Oita in eastern Kyushu. The ferry leaves every hour on the :30 minutes, so we aimed for the 8:30PM sailing.  We stopped in Matsuyama, first at a bike shop to see if we could get Jerome's front derailleur adjusted a bit (immediate repair declined), then at a convenience store. Lots and lots of traffic lights.
Bike shop in Matsuyama ... tried to persuade the attendee to take a look at Jerome's front derailleur.
At one point west of Matsuyama we met 3 young locals on road bikes ... probably high school or university students ...  and chatted a bit. We mentioned that we were headed for Mizaki. The response: "hills"!

Yes, the 35-km section between Yawatahama and Mizaki was hilly -- our route went along the spine of a steep ridge of a peninsula, with several climbs, and not easy after nearly 200 kms in the saddle and with a bloated stomach. Fortunately, this road was designed for cars to travel quickly from end to end -- with no really steep sections or sharp turns, but gradual climbs, tunnels and bridges to smooth things out. And the last 10-15 kms was gradual downhill and very fast. In the dark, we could see lights of small towns and various facilities on the coast near Ikata, but the recently restarted and then enjoined/shut down again Ikata nuclear reactor was hidden on the North side of the ridge as we passed.
Ferry from Mizaki to Oita
Bikes secured on board!
We made it with plenty of time for the 830PM sailing, and lay down and slept a bit during the 70 minute transit. In Kyushu, again we were on a relatively flat stretch. I was still the only member of the group grumbling and complaining. Would I quit? I opted for a convenience store "ebi gratin" while the other members got ramen (or, in Jerome's case, meat and gyoza) across the street.

Moon visible during endless climbing ... pre-dawn.
Tanaka-san pointed out that we had a very tough section again, all hilly until the crest at nearly 1000 meters elevation around 330-340 kms into our route. His plan -- if we could get NEAR the crest by our 7AM checkin, then we would have no difficulty in clearing our required 360kms by 9AM. Of coures, the ferry TIME is included, but DISTANCE is excluded, so looking at the route on RidewithGPS, we would need to get to almost the 390 km mark by 9AM to complete the challenge.

This led to a discussion -- should we press on or dare we try to get a short rest at a day spa (open until the wee hours) just ahead. I felt I needed some more rest if I was to continue. Higuchi-san also said he needed rest. The others agreed to one hour -- arrival just after 1130, departure at 1230AM.  We were around the 260km mark (231 not counting Ferry), and would need to get another 90 kms in by 7AM to hope to clear the minimum.  6:30 hours to go 90 kms ... sounds very doable, right?


The first hour or two out from the onsen it looked as if we might make it. We slogged along. I recovered, actually. At one point we passed a 3-person flèche team.* They looked younger (all in 30s?), well-equipped and as if they should be lapping us. But in the dark after 1AM, they were slogging, one weaving a bit as he climbed. We made sure to be in a beautiful 5-rider formation and sailed by!

*Each 3-5 person Flèche team designs its own course. The end points are all close by, but each team starts at a different time and place. Still, it is not uncommon in these events to see at least a couple other teams.
One of our checkpoints. Already light out .. we should be passing here in the dark!
Then we turned onto a local road, Route 239 ... which we took as far as local Route 412, then local route 30, then local route 131.  For tired riders, these roads were death. Up, down, up, down, up, down, up, down, up, down, and up ... over many hours creeping from sea level to around 250 meters elevation, then again to around 600 meters elevation, then finally to around 900. At least the LAST few climbs were out in the open, with some visibility further than the next ridge.  Some climbs, I struggled, some Higuchi-san, some Jerome, who needed to rest and could barely make forward progress at one point (and mumbled something about the "pre-ride" having been a bit overambitious). Kozakai-san struggled early, but then seemed to pep up and was very strong. Tanaka-san was our rock. He had planned the course and kept trying to cheer us on "only 3 more dips, then the climb should level out and be very gradual" (in fact there were at least 5 more dips), "only another 10 kms and we should be on the plateau near the top" (okay, more like 15-20 kms).  "If we can just do 15 kph we should get far enough for the final 2 hours, and we can easily cover 40+kms in the last 90 minutes descending" (actually, the start of the descent was much farther on).

At one point I stopped briefly to rest and take a snack from my bag, and as I climbed again, I passed a team member walking his bike up the slope. On the next steep section, I did the same for awhile -- it seemed easier on the body and just as fast as riding.

When we finally got to our 7AM check in point, and took our group photo (proof we were riding together, as needed for the Flèche rules), Tanaka-san again argued that we could make it!  "Only another 10 kms before the descent starts, since my GPS says we have already gone 10 kms further than this point, so we can make it". I felt obliged to point out that from the map it looked as if it really was still another 20 kms to the crest of the the climb (the landmark had not moved, just we had recorded some extra mileage somewhere along the way), and we were out of time.  We slogged on the rest of the 24 hours, but were nowhere near the 360km mark. I did not even start going down the hill until after 9AM. Indeed, it was a route too hard.
Many controlled burns on Mt. Aso.
Looking down from the slopes of Mt. Aso into the populated crater.
We gathered (having spread out) and rested at Ni-ju Touge, and decided to ride to Ozu just west of Kumamoto. It was indeed a very fast descent, and 20 minutes/13 kms later, Jerome, Tanaka-san and I were loading our bikes for the train home, via Kumamoto where we stopped for a delicious, hearty bowl of Kumamoto-style ramen.

If only:

... I had eaten a much simpler lunch, or no lunch and many smaller feedings, and my stomach had not acted up.
... Jerome's derailleur rubbing had not taken so much time to fix properly (new bike, tight tolerances).
... we had started at 9AM sharp instead of wasting precious time (okay, less than 10 minutes) fiddling when we had arrived at the start 30 minutes earlier.
... we had skipped the onsen.

But, let's face it, this course was just too hard for this team in our current condition. I don't think it was 5000 meters of climbing as the route GPS suggested, but in fact it was at or close to 3500 meters, much of it in the last 1/3 of the ride, in the dark of night, and the constant up and down making it impossible to get any kind of rhythm or momentum. This is the risk of designing and committing to a course in an unfamiliar location. We had a learning experience, as well as one heck of a ride.

I hate to give up, and I hate to "DNF" any event, but this time I felt as if I got my money's worth. We did ride the full 24 hours, and I did ride more than 360kms including the trip to Ozu and from our hotel to the start (and from Shinagawa back home). And DNF'ing because the route we picked was too hard ... that is somehow better than a "DNF" as a result of a mechanical problem, an accident, illness, etc.
Kumamon greets visitors at Kumamoto station.
As I write this on Monday morning, having gotten 4+ hours sleep on the train and another 8-9 hours overnight, I am in post-Brevet heaven. My body is 90% recovered, deeply relaxed, the mind is clear, and I cannot wait to ... do it again!*

*Randonneurs call this phenomenon "randonesia" -- we forget the pain and suffering almost immediately, and remember only the good things.

Our actual route is here: