20 May 2012

2012 TOITO -- On the Most Beautiful Day of the Year

We are now well into 2012's peak bicycle racing season.

Saturday saw the 14th stage of this year's Giro d'Italia -- the first high mountain stage into the Alps, near Aosta.  There are some incredible days ahead next week in the Dolomites and Sud Tirol, including the 20th stage that goes over Passo del Tonale, then the Mortirolo and the Stelvio (Bormio side climb).

In this week's Tour of California, Rabobank's Robert Gesink capped his recovery from last year's broken femur with a victory on Mt. Baldy that also put him 45 seconds ahead in the overall leader's jersey, with only Sunday's Stage 8 Los Angeles circuit remaining.

And Japan also witnesses two major events this weekend -- the start of the 15th annual Tour of Japan, in Sakai on Sunday (today), and Saturday (yesterday)'s running of the 41st annual Tokyo-Itoigawa Fastrun Classic ("TOITO").

Of course, it is typical Positivo Espresso braggadocio to compare TOITO with these other events.  Admittedly, TOITO is not quite in the same league, even if it has been around longer than the Tour of California or the Tour de Japon.  And just as important, it is not really a race.

It is more like a timed 308 kilometer one-day ride -- a "fast run" on open roads, some with heavy traffic and street lights.  The term "fast run" is a pretty good description of what it is getting at.  Unlike a Brevet, where the goal is to finish within a specified time limit, the goal for TOITO is to finish within a specified time limit, and to do so as quickly as you can.  There is no lunch break -- just the food at the rest areas and, in my case, a few minutes to vacuum down some microwaved spaghetti at a 7-11 en route.  There is not a lot of time to stop for photos -- a shame on what must have been the most beautiful day of the year, on a route that traveled by snow capped peaks, green valleys and roaring rivers much of the way.  TOITO is a kind of right of passage.  Any serious road cyclist in Japan needs to complete it once, just to show that it can be done.  Only a few are foolish enough to repeat the experience.

This year the organizers made a major change of the route, and as a result the length increased from 291 to 308 kms.  The start moved from Takao in Tokyo, to Manriki Park in Yamanashi-shi (Yamanashi City), in the middle of Yamanashi Prefecture.

It would be more accurately named the "1st annual Yamanashi-shi-Itoigawa Fastrun Classic".  But anywhere except in Japanese English usage the term "classic" would be dubious if it were really the first run of an event.   And Yamanashi-shi is not really significant to the event, and the word is difficult placed in mid-title, with its double "shi".  Maybe they should just call this event the "41st Annual Itoigawa Fastrun Classic", since it at least does go to Itoigawa?

Some key consequences of the route change:
  • The start area seemed to have more room for team cars, overnight camping, etc.  There are cheaper business hotels and then are only 7 kms away, instead of 8 or 9 kms.  And now there is no way to do the event from Tokyo without leaving home the night before -- forcing one to actually try to get some sleep the night before the ride.
  • There is no traffic whatsoever as one takes National Route 20 through Kofu around 5AM, in contrast to 9AM or later when going on the old route.  At 5AM, it hardly matters whether one takes the surface streets or overpasses on Route 20 through Kofu, and Kofu becomes a much more pleasant experience.  Also, traffic was lighter than in prior years through Shiojiri/Matsumoto, at 9AM instead of 1PM-ish.  And it was really nice to ease into the event over a stretch that gradually descends about 75 meters over 10 kilometers from the start, instead of launching into the Otarumi Pass climb right out of the gate at Takao.
  • The new route avoids the harrowing tunnels on the descent from Hakuba to Itoigawa, and instead swings far to the East, through Nagano-shi, then over a climb to Shinano-machi, past Lake Nejiri, and then swiftly descends to the coast at Joetsu, before taking the coast road the final 50 kms to Itoigawa.  Parts of the descent to Joetsu were in heavy traffic, with plenty of big rigs, even log trucks and tanker trucks, but at least there was a good shoulder on the road almost the entire way.
As in past years, some people did their own creative routing -- taking a steep shortcut on the climb to Shiojiri Pass to shave off about 1 km, even though it is NOT the official route this year as construction is long past complete on the "usual" route; some go the wrong (longer) way around the East side of Lake Suwa; intentionally or not, some took a Route 19 bypass to go around the center of Nagano City and miss some of its many traffic lights; and some riders were seen taking a major short-cut near Joetsu to join the coastal road a few kilometers to the west of where Route 18 does.  I stuck to the "official" route the entire way.

Looking at a random selection of riders, the change in route and additional 17 kilometers distance seemed to increase average times 30-50 minutes from last year.  This year, the temperatures were ideal.  Even at mid-day, I did not see any roadside thermometer showing more than 24 degrees celsius, and after a morning chill -- helpful on the first long climb, it was 15-20 degrees celsius for almost the entire remainder.  The wind was an obstacle, but no worse than in past years, and it actually in our favor the last 35 kilometers.

On Friday afternoon, I rode out almost 120 kms from my home to Yamanashi with Pete W.  Pete is a very strong rider, who said he often logs 400-500 kms a week, except when he is coaching seasonal sports at one of the international schools where his wife Glenda (who he said also rides) is an administrator.   Pete is the type of rider who can and has placed top 10 or 20 at the annual Norikura hill climb.  Did I mention that he is Australian, is handy enough to have built a house for their family in Australia, and likes beer -- with preference for microbrews, or maybe Asahi or Ebisu?  Kirin is accepted only in the absence of any other available choice, such as at the Itoigawa finish area.  He also had some good advice for me regarding my riding position and persuaded me that it is past time to get a longer stem for my Canyon bike so I can move the seat forward from its current extreme set-back.
The Fuefuki River in Yamanashi, runs through the heart of Takeda Shingen's former domain.  "Fue" is a Japanese type of wooden flute, and "Fuefuki" roughly means "playing the flute".
In front of  the Hotel Sun Plaza along the Fuefuki River.  Single rooms were 3150 yen as advertised on the sign.  And there was even a Daily Yamazaki store on the premises.
Pete enjoys post-ride refreshment (Asahi Super Dry 350mm) in front of the hotel's former Italian restaurant, now closed, as we wait for Douglas and Steve to check in.
Douglas (who made it to the podium in the 75kg+ class at Yatsugatake hill climb in April) and Steve T. (who will always be known to me as the man who rode his bike from England to Japan) came out later in the afternoon by train.  I probably should have taken the train myself, since the Friday afternoon ride made clear to me that my legs had not yet returned to "fresh" condition after the Tohoku 1700 rides over Golden Week, and also that my overall cycling training this year has been very scattershot, especially compared with last year when I was focused on TOITO as part of my methodical preparation for Transalp.

Michael R. rode his Neil Pryde bike out from Tokyo after the rain showers had passed and made it in time to join us during dinner.  Gunnar, harried at work this week, ended up catching a train that got him to Yamanashi and Manriki Park well after 11PM.  He set up his camping hammock there, and tells me that it was quite cold outside over night.

The Sun Plaza hotel, where I had reserved rooms for all of us but Gunnar, offered spacious single rooms for 3150 yen each, and a large onsen style bath as well.  It had a Daily Yamazaki convenience store on the 1st floor which served cold beer by the can.  We quenched our thirst and watched the mountains visible from the front of the hotel, and then headed for a stroll through the Isawa Onsen area of Fuefuki City, looking for an appropriate restaurant and eventually finding a place that served large cast iron bowls of "houtou" -- a Yamanashi delicacy of thick flat noodles in miso soup with "the works" on top -- all kinds of vegetables and, for me, prawns, scallops and other seafood.  Perfect pre-race food.

I was relieved that the hotel worked out okay this year, after all the ribbing I took from MOB for the tiny, cubicles they called rooms at the R and B Hotel in Hachioji back in 2008 during our first Positivo Expresso appearance at TOITO.  Of course, the Sun Plaza does not seem to be part of a chain, and it is a bit worn around the edges.  They even let us bring our bikes to our rooms, without taking the wheels off -- a battle fought and won by a group of Japanese TOITO competitors who checked in at the same time as Pete and me.

If we had any major complaint, it had to do with the wake-up calls.  The four of us with 4:25/4:35AM starts asked for 3:15 automated wake-up calls.  Mine (and the others) came at 2:57AM.  Michael R., whose start was not until 6:20AM, asked for a later call.  His call did not come; or if it did, it came late.  Or maybe (doubtful) it came on time, and he dozed off again.  In any event, Michael did not get to the start on time and lost precious minutes because of it.  He was riding entirely alone for the early stretches, because of his late start time.
4:15AM, assembled at the start, after an early wake up call.

As for the ride itself, I liked the new course somewhat better than the old, and was quite happy in that at least I felt that I got, if anything, stronger as the ride went on, and did not suffer too much from my unsystematic training in the year's first quarter (January to March).

Douglas and Pete en route
Douglas, Pete and Steve started 10 minutes after me, and passed me about 40 kilometers into the event.  I could not hold onto the back of their train, and ended up pulling off the road within 10 minutes after they passed in order to use the public facilities in a rest area, after which my digestive system largely ceased its complaints.  Steve T. dropped off their back not too much further than I up the climb to Fujimi. Pete and Douglas rode together the entire ride, and finished in a great time, an excellent performance slowed only by one flat tire/change (and then a slow leak in Pete's replacement tube as they approached the finish).  Gunnar passed me when I was resting at a 7-11 in Nagano-shi, and seemed to be riding solo the entire way.  Tom S. passed me just as I was slowly getting up to speed a few minutes later on ... and I missed the next traffic signal and did not see him again until the finish, where he was already looking relaxed and cleaned up, post-onsen.

I rode mostly alone, after escaping off the front of the group I started with.  On the climb through Nirasaki, however, I joined the rear of a group of about 8 Japanese riders from two teams, all sucking the wheel of the guy in front.  After about 5-10 minutes of this, the strong rider in the front started to slow, tiring in the headwinds.  No one stepped up, so I rode up the line, loudly chastising them for not rotating and sharing the work, and urging every one to take a pull, however short.  I took my turn and did about 1 km on the front, then drifted off back ... and we had a real pace line for a few kilometers, until one of the two teams dropped out, leaving me with 2 other riders (one of whom had a nice bike with beautiful Enve carbon wheels, aero bars, etc., an awful clicking noise coming from a loose rear spoke).  We did cooperate for awhile and the 3 of us were still together when Douglas, Pete and Steve passed me.

There were some other stretches of the ride when I pulled for others, especially into the headwinds while we traveled north from Nagano on route 18.  On the shallow, early stages of the climb, I pulled a Jyunnobi (Niigata-based team) rider who was a couple years older than me and said he weighted 56 kgs (to my 95).  He was very appreciative of having someone big to block the headwind.  I did not mind, but finally waved him ahead when the climb got steeper.  And I rode with a "Charirin RC" club member taking turns at the front on the stretch ahead of checkpoint 2.

As I pulled into the third and final checkpoint, a small lady in a black polo shirt was directing me and other riders not to pull into the 7-11 parking lot, but to go to an adjacent lot where there was a blue banner waving in the breeze.  Only I must have not understood, as I got quite close up (and into a stand-off with a little farmer's truck that was turning in nearby me) before I figured out what was going on.  Who was the staffer?  It was Midori Shiroki, Chair of Japan Audax.  I had last seen her as we suffered up the long hill at Tappi Misaki a few weeks back in Tsugaru Peninsula, Aomori.  There were a number of other Saitama Audax PBP 2007 and 2011 jerseys in the field, including the #8 finisher.  And I saw Maya Ide just before and at the first checkpoint.  Maya, who rode PBP last year, and joined a number of the Tohoku 1700 rides, will also do the Cascade 1200 in late June.  Another Tohoku rider had told me to watch for him -- and shown me what his team jersey looked like -- but either I did not pass him or I completely missed him.

I did get to serve as "domestique" for Michael R. on the long descent from Nejiri-ko to the coast at Joetsu.  Mikey rolled into the 3rd and last checkpoint (213 kms) just as I was about to leave.  He caught me and zoomed by at around 223 kms.  But I was just getting a second (or eighth?) wind, and descending into a stiff headwind I started to really enjoy the benefits of my aerodynamic HED Jet 6 wheels, my Vision mini-TT aero bars, and my sturdy 95 kg frame.  I caught Mikey at kilometer 229 and suggested I would try to give him a pull.  I did so, as fast as I could, for the next 15 kms or more.  When I started to flag a bit as the descent neared its end, he handed me one of his spare gels, which I quickly downed and gave me enough apricot flavored sugar to continue a bit more.  This was fun.

It was also fun riding along the long semi-downhill stretch between Shiojiri Pass and Nagano-shi.  This stretch of 90 kilometers went from a high of over 1000 meters elevation to a low of 330 meters, with no climb of more than 50 meters anywhere in between.  Even riding solo, I could make excellent time with my aero tuck.  Likewise, the 40-plus kilometers along the coast road from Joetsu to Itoigawa was also fun.  The sea was beautiful, and the headwind that had dogged us from Nagano-shi shifted around and became a mild tail wind, helping to push us home.  I also was able to ride a good bit of the last 20 kms with some Japanese riders, including reappearances by the guy with the noisy, clicking spoke and the "Charirin RC" member.  As we neared Itoigawa, we stopped at a red light.  As is often the case, Japanese road racers accelerate faster than I do ... though I often top out at a higher speed once I do get going.  They took off after the light and I found myself off the back, and decided I would just finish alone, going into my aero tuck again and eventually losing a few hundred meters.  But as the course turned off the coast for the short ride inland to the finish, I saw them again, just starting up at a light that turned green.  I put on "full gas" and did my best Fabian Cancellara imitation, and passed them at about 45kph just as they approached their normal cruising speed.  When I looked back a minute or two later just before the finish, no one had followed, or was even visible around the last curve in the road.

My 20 km time splits, visible at the "metrics" tab on RidewithGPS, show that I had long stretches spread evenly throughout the day with an average moving speed comfortably over 30kph.

That said, my average total speed, including rest times and checkpoints, was no better than last year.

My main complaint as the day wore on was the soles my feet.  From a short ride a week ago, I knew that my cleats on my shoes had slipped and the placement was problematic.  So I had remounted and realigned the cleats to make sure they were well centered under the balls of my feet.  One of the cleat bolts had been stripped by the hex wrench, so I replaced it Thursday and checked them again.  The shoes were comfortable on the trip out from Tokyo to Yamanashi ... but by the time I was 150 kms into TOITO, I was getting intermittent numbing in the right foot, with the kind of tingling and searing pain you might get from going ice skating and tying the skates too tightly, as the blood flow cuts off and returns to the foot.  I tried to compensate by pulling up more on the pedals instead of pushing, and then by pushing more with the left foot than right ... which, of course, also caused the left foot to also become a bit numb and start to hurt.  I took a couple of extra 5 or 10 minute rests in between the checkpoints to let my feet recover, losing precious time (but also eating and/or lying down and closing my eyes, to get the most from the break).  I got out the bike multi-tool and tried to adjust the right cleat, ... but the tool's hex wrench promptly stripped the new bolt.  The bolt would not loosen without a large screwdriver, which I did not have.  And even if I could have loosened it, the cleat placement looked okay to my eye, so I am not sure what I would have done.  In any event, according to my Garmin my riding time this year was 11:08, but my total time was 12:51, so almost as long off the bike as when we did TOITO back in 2008, and much longer than last year.

Once I had pulled Michael R. down the long descent after Nejiri-ko and realized that I was not going to make it to the finish under 12 hours, I took a nice, relaxed break outside a 7-11 just south of Joetsu.  There was shade around the side of the store, which was set well back from the highway, by a little flowing canal, and I could eat, rest, and look up at a tree moving in the breeze and completely blue sky.  It looked like this:
I felt that this must be what Prince Andrei saw when he lay wounded at the Battle of Austerlitz, in War and Peace, and realized that all his former ambitions were pointless.  Of course, the 7-11 roof overhang should be cropped out of the picture.

I was a bit surprised, after resting for a few minutes and even closing my eyes, to come around the front of the store and see at least 7-8 road bikes on the front of the store, riders collapsed outside, and in lines at the rest room and register.  Maybe I had closed my eyes for longer than I thought?  I remounted my bike and did not stop again until the finish.

TCC finishing times were:

Michael R. in 10:20:56.  Good enough for 13th place overall.  

Pete W. and Douglas E., 10:35:54. Tied for 19th.

Gunnar H. at 11:06:56. 28th place.

Steve T. 11:52:55. 45th place.

David L. 12:51:45. 97th place ... my first "top 100" finish, despite the rests.

Riding for the Jyunnobi team, Andy W. is listed at 9:34:21, in 7th place.

And Tom S. came in at 10:30:37 for 17th place and 2nd in his age group.  

Kondo-san of Nalshima Frend, a perennial top-5 finisher and former champion, won the event in 9:22:11.  He is the fastest Brevet rider in Japan, and this is in line with his prior efforts.  Respect.

Looking at the incredible efforts by the other TCC members, I would fear that I might lose my starting position in next year's team, except that, as usual, just about everyone participating in our group has declared they will NOT DO IT AGAIN next year.  We shall see.

Andy W's trip report (English and 日本語) can be found HERE.

The GS Astuto report can be found HERE.

1 comment:

SteveT said...

David, great write-up: but it's taken me almost a week before I can bring myself to read about it and relive it again. I dunno, this time when I say it's the last time I think I actually mean it. Like I did last year. And the year before... I felt a good bit less fitter than I did in 2011 but seemed to root far further into the pain locker and actually improve both my placing and average speed. But, for me, this was pain on so many mental and physical levels. It was a bad idea trying to keep with Pete and Doug earlier on - should have kept to my own pace - and the lack of longer rides recently led to some really raw nether regions after 220k... just as we started getting to the really rough roads north of Nagano. Luckily I'd brought a tub of Assos cream with me, which I regularly stopped to apply, slightly self consciously, on the side of the road.

But that's what it's all about I guess ! Like yourself I got a 2nd (1st?) wind for the last stretch on route 8, and fueled by coke and pokari sweat made really good time to get within my time target of 12hrs.

Jeez. Maybe I can bring myself to look at the bike by the weekend.