Nikko valley in the early morning as the rain clouds lift, as seen from just below Taki-ga-hara Pass:
Q: What is the best way to see the flat, endless farm land of the North Kanto Plain (Saitama, Ibaraki and Tochigi Prefectures)?
A: In pitch dark, with fresh legs and a stiff tailwind.
I joined another Brevet this weekend, this time sponsored by Saitama’s Audax chapter. It had everything — severe wind, rain, flat, hills, dark, light, sun, blown yellow sand from China lowering visibility dramatically, solitude, deserted roads, crowded traffic, and on and on. And yes, lots of trucks still run on Sundays in Saitama/Tochigi/Ibaraki, even on a 3-day weekend.
For the 300 km „Attack–Nikko Toshugu“ event, Saitama Audax offered an 8AM Saturday or 0:00 Sunday start time. I chose midnight — better to get in 5-6 hours riding in the dark without any traffic than to be in traffic almost all the way and still have 5-6 hours in the dark.
The route involved going North to Kanuma, just SW of Utsunomiya, then a clockwise loop near Nikko, and then a return along the same route again to the South. Unfortunately, given the strong westerly wind on Sunday (maximum gusts measured in Chiba at 140 kph?), the route swung East initially, which meant the last 20-25 km were heading West, mostly directly into the wind. At times I laughed as my bike almost stood still. On some wide open stretches with a cross wind, I could barely stay on my bike. A car or truck would pass, blocking the wind momentarily, and I would swing wildly to the right as they blocked the wind for a second, only to swing wildly back left as the wind hit again.
Saturday night was a different story, however. The prevailing wind for the first 3+ hours of the ride was a stiff breeze from the South. As we headed out, every time we turned toward the North, we flew. We saw lots of Saturday 8AM stragglers on their return (headed for 17-18-19 hour times, just under the 20 hour limit), and they must have suffered a lot riding into the wind on the Southward return.
I started in the first small group and, for the first 20-30 km I was in front, with 2 other riders, one stronger rider constantly pulling ahead (until a traffic light would stop him), another sucking my wheel. Sometimes I would let up and wave the wheel sucker through, and he would just drift back behind me. I think what we had there was a failure to communicate. I led the group down a slope and through some curves, and the three of us finally got onto a nice, wide, smooth path along the top of levy of the Tonegawa. The stronger rider (with me as the wheel sucker) put some distance between ourselves and Mr. Do No Work. I even pulled a bit, until about 5 km later I realized I would collapse at the first check point at this pace, and let the stronger man go ahead. Relieved that there were no bicycle lights visible behind, and having passed all the 8AM returning stragglers, I was alone for about 30-45 minutes, already over 60 km into the event.
Eventually, I got a bit lost, hunting around with a light looking for a „Falken“ sign that marked a right turn onto a small agricultural road amid rice fields. Was this the second or third right after the small „Do Not Litter“ sign? After a few minutes someone came along who seemed to have a GPS track (none was posted on the website) or at least to know the route well, and I followed him. We eventually made a wrong turn where there were two roads very close together and hit a dead end, … only to see a group of 8-10 cyclists moving through the night about 100 meters away. We backtracked, caught them, and I was not far from other cyclists for the remaining 240 km.
In any event, things slowed way down after the first check point (at just past the 100km mark). The rain started around 4:30AM, and I hit a wall on the gradual climb up Prefectural Rte 14 (the „Koubugahara Highway“) along a very picturesque river (with lots of recreational fishermen out early), and then up to Nikko Touge (a short climb to just over 450 meters), then back down into a nice valley where you could hear then 6AM wake up bell at a temple among the trees and clouds (gonggggg, gooonnngg, gooonnnngggg).
Despite consumption of High5 energy bars, High5 4:1 energy/protein mix drink, and even High5 energy gel (with caffeine, raspberry flavor), which otherwise served me very well, I lost it on the climb up to Takigahara Pass on Prefectural Rte 277. The online ride description had warned that this is a „geki-saka“, a severe hill, and they were right. Not only was it steep (yes, part of it was „Wada steep“, not quite Nenogongen steep, and longer than Wada with the bottom at 350-400 and top near or above 850 meters — ranking a 1.6 or 1.7 on the Wada Scale), maybe it was riding all night without any sleep, or maybe the lack of a compact crank or a 27 tooth large gear on my rear wheel, or the fact that I was using my 36/32 heavier gauge spoke training wheels — not climbing wheels — or just being overweight and out of shape, probably some combination of all the above excuses and more. High5 alone could not save the day. I ended up dismounting to rest and then had to walk up to the next turn to find a place where I could actually remount and start to ride again. … the same thing was repeated further up the hill. But the second time, instead of some other riders zooming past, I could look back and see at least 3-4 people walking up below me. I hopped back on a few meters up the hill at a curve where the grade flattened and road widened enough for me to remount and push ahead. … Strangely after riding the next 150 meters or so, the walker below me had closed the gap noticeably! So I hopped off and walked the last bit to the top as well, just in time to see the clouds start to lift.
The rest of the ride was without too much drama. Some nice hills and country on the way back from Nikko, but nothing more than 100 meters elevation or so of climbing in a single stretch. I highly recommend this loop including Highway 14 and 277 — an excellent way into the Nikko area if one intended to ride into the mountains of Oku Nikko and beyond.
One of the nice things about these longer rides is that by the time you get to the 3rd or 4th rest area, you have seen the same group of riders a few times and actually start to talk with them. There was one older rider who recognized me as „the guy who had a tire puncture“ on last weekend’s Brevet, who I rode with for part of the last leg. He looked to be 15+ years older than me, but was hanging in there with no problem. He asked where I was from in the U.S., and when I mentioned Oregon, he said „Oregon, I won a silver medal there in 1998.“ Silver medal in what? „in cycling, in the Sprint event, at the World Masters Games.“ His name is Mitsuhiro Tsuchida and he is a retired Keirin rider. He said he now does only longer distance endurance events, no short distance/strength events. He has ridden L’Etape Du Tour 8 times, did Paris-Brest-Paris in 2007, and is targeting PBP 2011. Seems like another happy cycling fanatic. He has a cycle shop in Sendai which looks quite nice from their website — as you can see, some similarities to Positivo in spirit and design.
And I like his philosophy of „Tsuchida-ism“ cycling: 楽しく、楽に、早く、美しく (read „tanoshiku, raku ni, hayaku, utsukushiku“, or „fun, easy, fast, and beautiful“). I’m not sure either of us were compliant with any of those four core tenets — especially not the last — as we limped home in our reflective vests. Finally, about 7-8 km from the finish, another rider appeared 200-300 meters ahead. I said my farewells to Tsuchida-san and stepped up the pace. I caught the rider perfectly, at the top of a small overpass, permitting me to stomp the pedals one last time and push well ahead down the slope before he realized what had happened. When I looked back, he was barely in sight, and I could roll on home. Not a fast time (16 hours 20 minutes), but considering the conditions, not too bad either. And despite the horror of Taki-ga-hara, I felt better than last weekend. Now all I need to do is increase my speed by 15+%, and go through (more of) the traffic lights, and I will be ready for Itoigawa.
No more Brevets until April 17. Hope I’ll be able to ride with P.E. and MOB the next few weekends.