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:

1 comment:

Richard said...

In a way, it's a shame you didn't have an accident. You could have for ever referred to the scar as a flèche wound ;-)

(That's an incredibly corny joke, which I'm sure has been made many times before!)