21 May 2019

Jerome qualifies for PBP

The big fish at Omaezaki Port
I rode my 3rd Okitsu Classic 600km this weekend -- the previous two being in 2013 and 2015.

This time, the main goal was that Jerome qualify for PBP. (I already did so with my Tasmania series, so was just "along for the ride" and the training.)  He had chosen really, really tough 300km and 400km events, and so it was with some relief that I joined him for this 600km brevet.

ONLY ~6000 meters or so of elevation gain (ridewithgps says 6800m, route labo says 5605m, my GPS unit recorded 5900+), on a course that was familiar and offered many rewards. The weather forecast looked good -- dry and not too hot nor too cold, tailwinds along the coast near the start!

But it was not easy. 600km never is. The main surprise was a very stiff headwind on the return leg, that slowed us (and others) to a crawl and forced us to manage our time carefully on what otherwise should have been a fast return course.

As we neared Okitsu on Friday night, Jerome mentioned that he did not bring a reflective vest. He planned to get by with only a reflective "slow moving vehicle" triangle. I groaned -- what if the Audax staff did not let him start? Or someone complained during the ride? It depends on the group, but many local groups in Japan would not accept just a rear triangle. I gave him my extra rear triangle and he rigged a front/rear set on his back and chest. If the AJ Kanagawa staff complained, I would give him my vest. If his wheel was not rideable, I would give him my wheel. If he needed spare tubes, he could have mine. (He only brough two extra tubes -- not much for a 600k). After all, for this weekend, I was riding as his "domestique".
Jerome's jerry-rigged reflective gear.
(His shoes and helmet already make him the most visible rider during daylight).

We were off to a fast start a few minutes before 6AM. Jerome and I made excellent progress through Shimizu, along the Strawberry Line, then the Okuzure Kaigan.  He got a bit ahead of me on the short climb there when I stopped for a photo, and I only saw him again after descending into Yaezu.

From Okuzure Kaigan

More, from Okuzure Kaigan
There he was, alongside the road, off his bicycle. "I think I have a flat" -- he had a very soft rear tire.  So we rolled slowly to the next convenience store, guaranteed to be within a few hundred meters anywhere on this stretch of Pacific coast, and took a premature first break.  (Jerome was using a large "bikepacker" underseat bag, which had the benefit of holding everything he could want, but the detriment of no outer/separate pockets, and he needed to remove it entirely from his bike to dig out a spare tube.) After the tire change and a snack, and another 5 minutes or more to put the bag back on, we were back on the road!
My setup -- Imezi167 55mm rim tubeless-ready wheels. Fast!
My first try using a in-frame bag instead of front bag.
About 15 minutes later, Jerome slowed, "I think I have another flat". This time, we were just across from a "Workman" store selling work clothes and accessories.  We pulled in and Jerome went and bought a reflective vest while I worked on the tube/tire change.

After two flats in the first hour or so, I suggested he should put on his new, spare tire.  Only after I had installed the new tire as he was shopping in Workman did Jerome look at the just-removed tube and see that it had been patched before ... and was probably leaking. The flats, at least the second one, had nothing to do with the rear tire! I should have checked carefully. Jerome swore he thought he had brought "new" spare tubes, not patched ones. Anyway, I gave him one of my spare tubes, so he still had one more to go. No vest. Old tubes ... not the careful planning that a 600km ride PBP qualifier merits, I thought. Okay, maybe I said it out loud -- among friends, right?

With this 30 minute delay we were a bit late into the Omaezaki control, despite a good pace and tailwind. We had one more unscheduled stop, in Kakegawa, where we passed a Cycle Base Asahi and Jerome bought additional tubes and even another tire (?). I could not resist taking a photo of the giant fish across from the Omaezaki control, even though I had one from 2015. This time I would get the full tail in the photo frame!

This should have been an easy part of the ride, from Omaezaki through Kakegawa, Iwata, north of Hamamatsu and near Tenryu, but the weather was humid, the air heavy. Even with a tailwind and cloud cover to protect from direct sun, it felt hot and was not easy.
Fresh green growth on the hillside

After PC2, we headed north into the hills. Our course veered through Aichi Prefecture (Shinshiro), then gradually climbed along river valleys and ups and downs, through Toei and up to Niino Pass (Elev 1050). It was a very gradual climb, so the work just crept up on me.

I did not take many photos. I had a photo from 2015 of the giant "bottle" of regional sake with the mark 空 ("kuu") on the side. No need for another photo.  I had photos of the wild masked creature on the mouth of a tunnel -- local "monsters" who appear during the flower festival. The signs told us this was the road of the flower festivals (花祭りの道). I'm afraid we were a month late for the festival. But I appreciated the lush greenery, and the low traffic volume. This is a hidden corner of Aichi.

Eventually we were over Niino Pass, and down the other side. We were going down, but there was still plenty of up mixed in with the down. We stopped just before 8PM at Anan, the first convenience store in 50kms or so along Route 151. Jerome was flagging -- even more than me -- his lack of sleep over previous days and weeks catching up with him. I searched for a basic business hotel in Iida on my iPhone. The ones that Google found for me were all up the grindingly long hill by the train station (or in an entirely different town), way off of our route.

But with a bit of work on which areas I showed on the map, I finally got Google to point out the "Southern Cross Inn", just off our course. They had rooms available. Non-smoking rooms (the entire building, in fact, was non-smoking). Change does come to Japan, just slowly. The cost? 3000 yen each, plus 8% tax. Almost laughably cheap. We were at the inn by 915PM, still only 270km or so done, but Jerome especially needed the sleep, and I would not complain about it. We could only rest from 930PM-1240AM, and needed to be back on the road by 1AM in order to have enough time to reach the PC at Omachi, north of Azumino.

Just after dawn from outside of Shiojiri
It was very, very hard to get back on the bike after a short sleep -- for me only an hour or two, I think. I felt better after a 2AM "breakfast" stop at a 7-11, the only other customers 4 teenagers, 2 boys and 2 girls out on a cheap Saturday night date playing catch in the massive parking lot.

The stretch from Iida to Ina and up the hill through Tatsuno to Shiojiri is a gradual climb, barely noticeable, but interspersed with plenty of rolling hills. At least there is a new highway that includes bridges over some significant dips. I do not remember these new sections from 2013 or 2015, though I could be wrong.
Japan Alps hidden in clouds over Azumino

More Japan Alps .. this time with rice paddies.

Irises. There were lots of flowers nearby.

We arrived at the northern turn around, in Omachi north of Azumino, with 40 minutes to spare. We left almost 30 minutes after the control closing time. A long rest, and more tire changing. Jerome headed out with his new (from Cycle Base) tire on the rear, and shifted his new (brought along) front-wheel specific Giant P-SLR2 tire to the front. No more flats the rest of the ride! Trouble-free the last 500km+!
Swapping tires and tubes ... means off with the bikepacking bag, again.
Now Jerome pulled me. We made it through Matsumoto, and I suggested we stop for some food. I knew Jerome wanted a place to sit down, in a restaurant. Our "regular" family/chain restaurant stop is Gusto ... but before we reached the Gusto, we came upon a Gusto Steak place. Jerome loves steak during rides. Old school. I went along with the choice and ate a hamburger with fried egg. Steak at 1015AM on Sunday. We were their first customers of the day, the only ones in the place.

It was hot by now, and the headwind continued. Jerome went ahead up Shiojiri Pass (of course, this is the Jerome steak effect), waited for me almost 15 minutes at the top of the 7km climb. I had rested mid-climb where found a bit of shade. As soon as we were over the top, the wind hit hard. Wow. Gale force. I was gripping my bars on the descent, worried I would get blown into the lane of traffic by a gust. Before long we were down, through Okaya and heading along Lake Suwa. Whitecaps visible, strong, stiff breeze directly at us. Jerome was pulling me -- he loves to pull other riders in headwinds.

We made another convenience store stop between Suwa and Chino. I thought about giving up. Why continue -- just a long slog into the headwind to get to the final control by 5PM, then another long slog into the headwind to get to the finish before 10PM?

Of course, I banished those thoughts and we started the long, gradual 7.9km climb to Fujimi Pass ... never difficult, and always easier because of anticipation of the long descent on the other side. We made yet another (short) stop near the top, and we were on the descent through Hokuto ... past Hakushu, past Mukawa, entering Nirasaki. We had been leapfrogging riders continuously, but not really riding with others much. At least the wind was not quite a strong here. In Nirasaki, we turned onto Pref. Route 12 around the west edge of Minami Alps ... this is the least bad alternative, and offers a fast descent to the Fujikawa. At the turn off to Route 12, we started to ride with Hase-san, who remembered us from the "Isabella" 2016 Tohoku brevet week. Despite the headwinds and despite having left Omachi well after the cutoff, we were still 45 minutes or more ahead of the time cutoff at the last control. And were part of a big group at the control, many riders on a similar pace.

We took Yamanashi Pref. Route 9 from here -- yet another new road the next few kms. So many NEW roads have been built in Japan since I started cycling here 15 years ago, and gradually been incorporated into brevet routes.

I dreaded the ride down the Fujikawa. If the headwind continued as it had ... this would be a nearly 80km slog to the finish. I've done it before, and it is just not fun with a headwind at the end of a long ride.
New road under construction above the Fujikawa

But I need not have worried. The wind calmed to a fraction of its former self. Instead of a slog, we could relax and still make good time on the Fujikawa and enjoy the beauty of the surrounding mountains and the river all the way to Fujinomiya and Fuji! I was still riding, and already I had started to forget the pain of the heat and headwinds. Randonesia sets in early.

After we left the Fujikawa, it was just a short (15km) trip along local roads parallel to National Route 1, and we were done!

06 May 2019

Hike (and Bike) in Hakone to one of the best 100 bridges in Kanagawa!

A lower shoulder of Fuji barely visible over Ashinoko if you look closely, after the rain.

This Golden Week has been without any major bike rides.

I have somehow managed to maintain my sanity with shorter rides and trips near Tokyo, a few swimming workouts, and a mix of events in town, all undertaken without too much rain. (While still sane, I am now "chomping at the bit" for the 600km Okitsu classic, coming up May 18-19).

One of the events this week was a hike planned for students from the Keio LL.M. program. I suggested the "old road" at Hakone -- since I have done the climb from Odawara to Ashinoko/Moto Hakone by bicycle several times in recent weeks, and also that is where my teachers took me on a hike when I was at the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies more than 30 years ago.
An orderly procession
We planned to meet at Hakone Yumoto at 930AM. That would have given me time to ride out, if I had left home shortly after 6AM. I left home well after 7AM, so rinko'ed my bike and hopped the Tokaido Line from Shinagawa. I was late enough so that I took the train all the way to Oiso and only rode the last 21km to Yumoto. At least I was confident that bicycle would be the fastest way to get between Odawara and Yumoto -- I rode by a standing line of cars and buses, as usual. Yumoto is a major bottleneck from all directions, and requires a train transfer if you take JR to Odawara.
Ai the trailrunner leads the group across water.
Valerie next.
Then Kohei, Ai's husband, carries their daughter Nozomi.

Delicious green shade and dappled sunlight aside a stream.
The hike up the hill is mostly along on road the first half, and mostly on trails -- including the rough stone "paved" old Tokaido path -- the second half. It is nearly 13km from Yumoto to Ashinoko, and parts of it are steep. We rested briefly several times, including at Hatajuku, where there were woodcraft exhibits just off of the road.
Looking back toward Yumoto and Odawara
Everyone made it up the steepest part of the trail, the "nanamagari saka" or "seven hairpin curves slope". Actually, there are 12 hairpin curves on the current road, though the trail skips some curves and just goes straight up stairs or a very steep path at some points. This must have been quite steep back in the Edo Period, with only 7 switchbacks!
Our smallest hiker
Our first major stop was at the Amazake Chaya rest house -- Amazake being "sweet sake". I was curious to stop in, having passed it several times on my bicycle. The rest house serves a variety of traditional Japanese snacks, including ice cold Tokoroden, oden with miso, iced matcha green tea and, of course, amazake. I think all agreed that it was a really nice place to stop for a rest.  From there, it was only a short climb over the last ridge and then down to Ashinoko.
Well deserved rest at Amazake-Chaya.
Janina samples the delicious green tea and tokoroden
Close up of the snack
As we leave the Amazake Chaya
We could hear the thunder claps in the distance as we started this last stretch, and it started to rain ... though not the torrential downpour I associate with "thunder shower" ... on the last stretch downhill to Moto Hakone. Ai, wife of Kohei, one of the Japanese lawyers in our LLM Program, jumped from rock to rock on the descending trail as if she were an elf. I asked if she is a trail runner. Yes, she replied. Very impressive, though actually everyone was impressive, and made it to the finish without complaint.
We just hiked up that.
A better view of the old stone paved path
We could enjoy a filling lunch including "wakasagi" fish from the lake as the rain fell, and then headed across the road to the Moto Hakone bus station.
Kohei, Ai and Nozomi waiting for the bus in the cold rain.

More than half the group decided to head back by bus -- the prudent choice, especially for Kohei, Ai and their two-year old daughter Nozomi (who Kohei had carried up the mountain). With a small child, always quit while you are ahead). But also Wenyi and her friend Chao-san, as well as Janina. Three diehards remained, undeterred by the rain, and I continued with them in the rain down the cedar-lined path toward the Hakone Sekisho (checkpoint), restored to its Edo Period glory.
On the cedar-lined route to the Hakone Sekisho

The restored sekisho -- show your passports, please!

Hakone could be a cold, wet posting for a bureaucrat.
(Apparently some people would skip the checkpoint and pass around the back of the mountain. This was a serious offense, but was typically explained away and excused with "I got lost", part of the Japanese tradition of hon-ne and tatamae,
if I read the explanatory material correctly.)
By the time we left the sekisho, the rain had stopped, so we strolled on a detour through Onshi Hakone Park, climbed up and down lots of stairs (down the walkway of 200 stairs), and stopped at a view point. The views were well worth the effort.
Helpful sign to show where Mt Fuji would be, if it were sunny today.
Valerie, still smiling.
Hakone Shrine and its Torii across the bay
The diehards- one crazy professor, one LLM student and two Canadian (BC) youth.
Lower portion of the walkway of two hundred stairs. I only counted 197.
We did get to see, and cross, the famous Ashigawa-bashi or Ashigawa Bridge. I know it is famous because the mapboards inside the park told us it is one of the hundred best bridges in all of Kanagawa Prefecture.
One of the best 100 bridges in the entire prefecture!
This tells us a lot. For example, we know it is likely not in the top fifty, nor the top ten. And we can be pretty sure that it is not in the top 1000 bridges in the country. But it was even less impressive than we had anticipated. My first thought upon seeing it was "where is the bridge"? But sure enough, a granite post told us this was it, and there was some water, or at least a muddy area, underneath the pathway at some point.  Hidden in the brush on the opposite side of the mighty 2-meter (or 2.5-meter?) span was a plaque acknowledging its "best 100 bridge" status.
Best 100 bridges of Kanagawa!
Across the bay again.
We took the bus down the hill. I thought the bus would take us on the limited access "shindo" or "new road" back to Yumoto, but the driver announced as we started up that, due to traffic jams, we would take the same route we had come up, and we only switched to the limited access "shindo" for the last few km.
Silouhette of Canyon at Odawara Castle -- classic pose.
After standing on the crowded bus through the 12 hairpins of the 7 hairpin slope, I was glad to hop on the bicycle again and ride 30km to Hiratsuka before hopping the Tokaido Line home again.  So, counting the short trips to / from Shinagawa and the walk after lunch at Ashinoko, 53-55kms on the bicycle and at least 15-16km hiking. I slept soundly.
The main hike.

Stelvio -- A powerful brand for a bicycle, not so sure about an automobile.

The Stelvio Pass -- one of the iconic climbs of cycling. At La Folle Journee in Tokyo International Forum this weekend, I saw that Alfa Romeo, one of the sponsors, was displaying its "Stelvio" model of Diesel SUV?
Not the vehicle I would choose to climb the Stelvio Pass.
The below "Col Collective" video is a nice summary of the climb by road bike from Prato (which I am proud to remind readers that I have done 3 times, twice on Transalp, 2009 and 2011, and again once on Giro del Dolomiti in 2015). I hope I will get the chance again.