01 May 2018

North Kanto 400km - Utsunomiya Cycle Picnic?!

Bike (and rider) rest at dawn on Monday 4/30, somewhere on local Rte 75 between Sano and Kanuma
Utsunomiya's audax group teamed masterfully with local authorities to schedule a 400km brevet with start and finish at a recreational facility just Northwest of Utsunomiya city--known to many as the capital of Tochigi Prefecture and the home to the greatest gyoza in Japan (though fans of Hamamatsu in Shizuoka may contest the latter designation).

Hirose-san reads the very helpful, detailed, relevant briefing for this ride. Impressivbe.

The finish was Monday morning (Showa Day holiday), concurrent with a major "cycle picnic" that offered rides of 15, 65, 75, 100 ... and 400 kilometers. That was us, the 400 km group.

This concurrent event had several benefits. For the normal brevet fee (JPY1200 or around US$11), we received free "Saitama style" reflective vests (see below), frame badges, and a ticket to the very nice onsen facilities at the adjacent "Romantic Village" Michi-no-Eki. We also had free overnight parking, with the facility conveniently located close to the Utsunomiya exit from the Tohoku Expressway, so only an hour and 40 minutes' drive from my home in central Tokyo. And, I even got to witness the mayor of Utsunomiya, as he came up and greeted, and exchanged business cards with, Hirose-san, the leader of Utsunomiya Audax, as I checked in at the goal. (Sorry, no photo. I would have liked one with the youngish (40-something) mayor in dark suit, white shirt, slicked back black hair, tie clasp, etc., very out of place among the spandex clad crowd, and Hirose-san, the randonneur group's leader, in his jeans and cycling jersey ... somehow Hirose-san obviously was the much classier of the two). With Utsunomiya's role hosting the Japan Cup pro cycling race each autumn, maybe it is making a push to be something special in the cycling world in Japan. (Now, if only they would make some bicycle friendly routes THROUGH the city, so we don't always need to go AROUND it.) But, of course, this was all just the icing on the cake.
But wait, there's more! Free reflective vest!
Optional frame badge in red, white and blue

Non-brevet riders at one of many booths of the Sunday morning "Cycle Picnic" at the Goal
We were there for the ride itself! And when I parked and unloaded my bike at 615AM Sunday morning, there were no families going to the concert at the michi-no-eki, no sponsors in tents at the cycle picnic, and no short distance riders, couples or children on bikes. Instead, it was just us hard men (and women) who chose to ride a 400km event on a nice Sunday in late April.

Then  again, course was not so hard, with around 1100 meters of climbing on each half. Why mention the halves? The riders were split into two groups. One started with the East half from 7AM, the other started with the West half from 8AM. I took the East version. We passed each other somewhere around Ashikaga, just over 200km for us, just under 200km for them. I pulled off at around 225-230kms for a quick pasta at a Family Mart Cafe in western Ashikaga one block from the course -- a nice quiet store with cafe seating -- where the course which followed a levy along the Watarase river. As I finished up another rider pulled in. He was going the opposite direction, having started an hour later, and had gone just 200kms. We shared information before I headed out.
Park in Mito, Ibaraki, with center of the city visible across the lake. Azaleas everywhere this time of year.

Decorated trucks at O-Arai beach -- room for another row, perhaps, but not for the thousand or more lined up trying to enter.
The first 93kms was fast, to Mito and out to O-arai and the coastline.  To this point, I was with some faster riders, like Kamano-san. After leaving the checkpoint, we quickly entered a LONG traffic jam along the coast. As I continued through the line of stopped traffic, gradually the percentage of trucks got higher and higher, until the line was ALL trucks. They were headed toward O-arai No 2 (Dai Ni) Sunshine Beach. The trucks were all decorated with special paint jobs, accessories like the gaudiest of samurai helmets. I saw more than one pedestrian in a black t-shirt with the rising sun flag of wartime Japanese military usage. I thought, this is either a huge assembly of truck maniacs who are being judged for best paint job and decoration, or some kind of strange right-wing rally. In any event, after passing the beach entrance we continued SW along local Route 16 ... and opposite a 5 km line of trucks waiting in the opposite direction. They must have had a VERY long wait, since there was no obvious room on the beach's parking lot for any more of them.
More trucks
Anyway, as we headed south then west, the going got tough. The wind had picked up and was from the SW, and it was getting hot. A group of 3 riders zoomed past and I could not "hop on the back" even to keep pace. I slogged and slogged this second quarter of the ride. It was more of the same, typical Japanese "inaka" settings of towns, suburbs, farms, rice fields, some rolling hills and even a few forests. Then more of the same. Finally, there was a climb over the north shoulder of Mt. Tsukuba (it seemed very steep, but that might have just been my fatigue, or my lack of a real "climbing gear" on the bike I was using, or my poor physical condition compared with some prior years). The brakepads on my carbon rims squacked on the descent (I changed the front pads before the next climb), and then into a checkpoint at 152.5 kms.

The next leg was easier, at least no big climb, and the wind from our side, not front. There was even a tailwind as we rode a very nice path along the levy-top next to the Watarasegawa through Koga city and to the 200 km checkpoint. One rider came up and said hello and "hisashiburi" at the 200km checkpoint, He was tall, and I remember him from past rides ... but could not (and cannot) pull out his name from my memory. I need an Audax "facebook" with names next to photos -- and the photos need to show people with and without helmets/sunglasses. Otherwise, I am still hopeless with most riders' names, even people I see at these events repeatedly over the years. I miss Inagaki-san, I cannot help but think. We all do, those who were lucky enough to ride with him.
The route was first East, clockwise, then a counterclockwise western tail, misshapen figure eight
I reached the 200km point around 540PM, 10 hours and 35 minutes after my start. Half way, and now cooler. From here, we again rode adjacent to a mammoth traffic jam as we passed through Sano-shi and entered Ashikaga. But at least parts of Ashikaga were nice, and it was now cool and dark and very comfortable to ride. After my stop at the Family Mart Cafe, the route hugged the hills just north of Kiryu, and eventually climbed to around 500 meters elevation after crossing from Kiryu into Maebashi. After the disaster of the Tsukuba climb in the afternoon, I had feared this stretch. But it was cool, and dark, and the road was smooth, and the lights of Maebashi and Takasaki stretched out to the South in the valley below, and it was just delightful. I want to take this road again next time I need to cover this ground. The climb is well worth it, to get out of the congestion and sprawl. At one point, I stopped for a rest and a bite from my rucksack, and no one passed. Was I on the right course? ... Well, the GPS said so, and sure enough, when I got to the checkpoint 7-11, there were at least 6-7 riders there, and many more pulled in before I left.  I was on track, not suffering any obvious problems, and had climbed the last big hill. So even though I was only 270 kms into a 400 km event, I felt sure I would finish. The "bonk" of the afternoon heat, wind and climb, the legs that could barely turn over, were forgotten. Randonesia usually sets in awhile after the event, but this time it seemed to hit even during the ride, a few hours after the bonk.

Sure enough, the ride through Maebashi and Takasaki to the South was easy, and then the route continued flat to the East through until dawn, as I re-entered Tochigi and finally climbed a small rise parallel to the Tohoku Expressway. I saw another rider stopped, resting and taking a photo, and pulled over beside him. He complained that he was sleepy, and was delighted to have someone set a pace for him. We had talked at a few checkpoints ... though I never got his name. I actually pulled him the next 5-10kms, the only real "domestique" duties for me this ride. We caught a woman rider, and I drafted off of her for a few kilometers until our small three-person "train" fell apart as first the rider fell away off my back, then eventually I pulled into a convenience store for one last rest. After a snack and a 10-minute nap seated on a bench and wedged against a wall just out of the rising sun's light, I was ready to bring it home.
Sunrise in Southern Tochigi on local Rte 75
The last stretch included some short uphills, and then on the home stretch we were suddenly among riders from the "cycle picnic". But it was a new day, and I felt inspired to push home quickly. In the end, my time (just over 24 hours) was not at all inspired, but at least the last stretch felt that way!
At "Michi-no-eki Romantic Mura" on Sunday morning, après onsen
All in all, it was a very good training ride, in nice country and beautiful weather, in not-unreasonable traffic, with good colleagues and a few perks. And after a long afternoon and then night of sleep, I feel refreshed and rested.  ... and ready to do it again, soon.

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