The long anticipated April 17 Brevet has come and gone. Originally intended as an „Itoigawa training ride“ across Japan –just more mountains and less traffic — the course was changed 2 weeks ago due to snow on the mountain passes. (Apologies for another self-centered trip report, without even much attempt at humor.)
James K. had signed up, together with his friends Jamie S. (who has been on several of the recent rides) and Peter. Despite the route change, they stuck with it, and Michael and Ludwig indicated they might join as well as unofficial riders, despite the somewhat less interesting route to Yamanakako, down through Gotemba and Mishima, then Nishi Izu, Shimoda and Ito.
We were scheduled to start at 4AM Saturday from Fudabashi near Noborito. On Friday, the weather forecast looked bleak, with rain, snow and sleet predicted during the night on the Doshimichi/Yamanakako/Gotemba — much of the first half of the ride — but ending during the morning and forecast dry thereafter. It was not at all clear whether there would be snow accumulation. Michael and Ludwig both emailed that they would not join given the conditions.
Then, as I was about to try to get a few hours of sleep, a „ping“ in my inbox. The organizers posted an alert at 10:20PM — their telephone call to the Daily Yamazaki on Doshimichi — the first checkpoint — indicated snow and sleet were falling with snow starting to accumulate, and there were reports of heavy snow at Yamanakako. They concluded that the course would be unrideable on the original schedule but that conditions would improve quickly in the morning, so the start was delayed from 4AM until 10AM. I called James K. to make sure he got the message and could pass it on. The delayed start meant no way to get back home on Saturday night, so James K. would not be able to participate. Jamie emailed me — he and Peter were still in.
24 riders started, out of more than 60 that had signed up, under bleak skies with the rain just starting to let up. The course change, weather and schedule change has chased away the others.
After a congested ride through Hashimoto — a route that would be been fine at 4-5AM Saturday, but was not at all fun 6 hours later — we swung to the South of Tsukui-ko along Route 510, over a bridge about 1 km below the dam, eventually hit Route 412, took it North over and down the small ridge and turned left onto Doshimichi (route 413).
As we climbed up Doshimichi, we caught glimpses of blue sky and saw snow on the hillsides, then eventually in the fields, then right up to the edge of the road, with depth increasing as we climbed. The juxtaposition of flowering cherry trees and heavy snow, with a bright sky, blue in places, was beautiful, and unusual to say the least. I wish I had brought a decent camera, but there was no room in my pocket or seat bag, with supplies and gear needed for 300 km, all kinds of weather and a long ride in the dark ahead.
After the Daily Yamazaki at Doshi, the much younger (early 30s) Jamie and Peter eventually went ahead for the last, steepest part of the climb. At this point, we were in clouds again and the cold had set in. When we next met, as they came into the 2nd checkpoint hours later just as I was getting ready to mount up again, Jamie reported that they could not resist, and had pulled off for a cup of tea at the British-themed Cafe a few kilometers later on the ride from Yamabushi Pass down to Yamanakako.
In any event, as I looked through the tunnel at Yamabushi Pass, all I could see was white and grey at the far end. Clouds and wind, chilling cold (about 2 degrees?) with a backdrop of 10-15 centimeters of snow on the ground, but a passable road, now after 1PM in the afternoon. The worst of the weather was on 龍坂峠 (Ryuu-Saka-Toge? Dragon Hill Pass?) [CORRECTION — Kagozaka-toge 籠坂峠] just after Yamanakako on Rte 138, and during the upper descent from there to Gotemba. Fog, wet road, plenty of traffic (and several cars stopped on the way down to the lake, trying to turn or get unstuck) and bone-chilling cold. I made it down, wishing that I had real mid-winter gloves and a thicker cap, and then enjoyed a fast, very gradual, descent to the second checkpoint.
There were no other cyclists at what I was sure looked like the right convenience store at the right intersection (my GPS was no longer guiding me through the course — I switched off the „follow saved ride“ feature once on Doshi Michi … and when I tried to restart it on the way to Gotemba, it was telling me only that I was 70 km off course and should go straight to Noborito). The old lady at the register said that, yes they had been told to expect the cyclists today, but I was the first to show up. Wow, these Kanagawa „randonneurs“ are not nearly as fast as the Saitama/Utsunomiya groups.
In any event, 2-3 others, then Jamie and Peter showed up before I left. Jamie said they were going to try to head back over one of the climbs to Atami and hop a train home from there. I warned them about the Atami Toge descent, wished them luck, and pushed on.
Finally, I make it through the sprawl of Mishima and onto Route 17 and the beautiful ride around Nishi Izu … most of which I will enjoy in pitch dark.
A few more kilometers, and we pass a harbor of sailboats, the sun low in the sky, reflecting off their masts and hulls.
Route 17 is peaceful, almost desolate, and the light holds out until I am most of the way to the 3rd checkpoint (185km). I’ve ridden Nishi Izu only three times before, and the first two times the hills and heat nearly defeated me (with Juliane pushing me up the hills South of Matsuzaki, hand on back, the first ride that I took with Michael and her there in 2005 or so; and David J. circling back from Ja-Ishi Touge — Snake Rock Pass — as I suffered in the heat on my next return). I’m determined not to let it happen again, and the cool and dark, help immensely. It is cold enough to be unpleasant if you stop too long, but perfect for the climbs and other exertion, and the descents are all short, so really ideal weather for riding. Or maybe it is the compact crank, or the High5 4:1 carb/protein mix drink I have been using today. In any event, I am first to the 3rd checkpoint, leave with one other rider (Mr. Quiet) and just before a third (Mr. „My Pace“).
There is a woman from AJ Kanagawa who greets me at checkpoint 3 … and later at 4 and the finish. She chats about the ride, which she did 2 weeks earlier in almost exactly the full 20 hours. She warns me to watch for raccoons on the dark stretches South of Matsuzaki … and sure enough, I surprise one that makes a racket in the brush and zooms across the road through my light beam later … no danger of hitting it, as I was climbing slowly, not descending. She tries to chat up Mr. Quiet, but he just grunts and eats his onigiri. This is the kind of guy they call „mu-kuchi“ in Japanese. At first I thought maybe he just did not want to talk with the foreigner, or maybe it was because we pissed him off when Jamie, Peter and I hopped our bikes onto the sidewalk and turned left from route 508 at a red signal, re-entering the deserted route 510 about 50m later — completely safe and even legal — leaving him patiently waiting for red to turn to green. So I was happy to see that he could not speak with the woman from AJ Kanagawa either. I do not give up. I try to strike up a conversation with him at checkpoint 4, and at the finish … where I figured maybe he would join me for a meal at Denny’s where we could kill an hour before heading for the station. But no avail. He heads off into the dark, and shows up later at the station, having changed into his street clothes and bagged his bike … somewhere. I do not try to approach him on the platform, or bid him farewell when he exits the next car of the Tokaido Line at Totsuka.
Mr. Quiet passes me during the 4th leg. I am cold and do not want to hang around checkpoint 4 very long, so I start out from that checkpoint ahead of him, and he passes me again on the 5th leg as I take a „safety rest“ on a hill NE of Shimoda, when I start to get a bit groggy, and almost dizzy. He finishes first, and I second Any hope of catching him is lost as I ride around Ito after making a wrong turn, passing 2 other 7-11’s before stopping to ask directions to the third where AJ Kanagawa-san is waiting, and Mr. Quiet is munching yet another onigiri.
The other rider from checkpoint 3, Mr. My Pace, is more friendly, and looks in very good shape. He arrives there riding fast, and when I mention something about perhaps riding together in a group in the dark, he responds that we should each go at „My Pace“ and take it easy. I leave Checkpoint 3 ahead of him with Mr. Quiet (who rides right behind me silently for about 5 km and then goes ahead). Mr. My Pace passes me on the first climb out of Matsuzaki. My legs are tired and to get some variation in muscle use, I am standing as I climb. He greets me by complimenting my „nice dancing“ on the pedals. I laugh at the description — Tom S. „dances“ on his pedals. I grind mine. „This is all I can do now“ I say, as he zips ahead of me, bright lights ablaze, repeating something about riding at „My Pace“. When I get to checkpoint 4, he has managed to find a place in the convenience store front wall where it is possible to wedge himself in and get some support as he rests. His head is down and eyes are shut. Mr. My Pace looks half dead, but I am envious that he can actually get some rest in such a place. If I am going to rest, I need to push on to find a bench, or ledge, someplace flat and hopefully out of the wind and increasingly damp and cold air. He is still in the same position when I head out 15+ minutes later. At the finish, I get a report from AJ Kanagawa-san. Mr. My Pace came all the way from Ibaraki by car, was at Noborito at 2AM ready for the 4AM start, and slept (a little) in his car because of the 6 hour delay. He cannot make it through a second sleepless night. He „retires“ at checkpoint 4 and says he will look for a place to sleep at Shimoda. It was still before midnight, so he might have managed to find something if he was lucky — then again, he was not having a very lucky day, so I imagine him spending the night shivering on a bench.
This was a hard ride — around 4400-4500 meters of climbing, 60% of it on Izu. And when you add the 10km from my house to the start, to the 306 km of the ride itself plus the few detours, I was probably over 320 km for the full ride, a 200 mile „double century.“ But it was the first time I have ridden a Brevet on a full 8+ hours of sleep. And if the conditions were difficult at Yamanakako, the cool weather helped on the last half. So unlike the shorter or less hilly rides earlier this Spring, I was never in doubt. And no mechanical (wheel or drivetrain) issues either, despite the messy road conditions.
Note: GPS shows only 296 km because it was switched off at one point early in the ride and again just after the S. Izu stop. Actual ride distance 306+ km, plus 10 km from my house to the start and 1.5 km from the finish to Ito.