James and I met at Ebisu station at 4pm on Friday and rode to Hachioji ahead of the 300km Tokyo-Itoigawa ride on Saturday. My pre-hydration plans had gone awry during the week as I ended up going out every night. To make matters worse I spent much of Friday at the Komazawa Olympic Stadium for my children’s sports day. 29 degrees and sunny, but much hotter down on the asphalt track. Not a good place to be. Having been so lucky as to travel to many exotic places around the world, exploring central Hachioji wasn’t to be missed. James and I met in the lobby. We were both wearing black Rapha T-shirts, but they were different designs so we did not have to scratch one another’s eyes out and pull hair and vow to never acknowledge one another again. Even if the good people of Hachioji had been aware that the Tour of Japan was going on at the time and the Rapha Condor Sharp team was participating I somehow doubt they would have mistaken us for professional cyclists.
We found an excellent little bar with a big Shane MacGowan poster (below, ex-Pogues lead singer who was thrown out because he was too rowdy and drunk even for an 80s Irish band so formed his own back-up band called The Popes) serving beer from a micro-brewery in Karuizawa.
The first pint of liquid carbs hardly touched the sides but as we are sensible we resisted the siren call of the beer tap and went across the street for some pasta and pizza and a little more liquid carb loading. Here we were well looked after by Eriko and Ernest (not from Hachioji but Ghana). Ernest’s card has him as President Ernest Amoah. Up before my alarm at 2:30 (no morning jogging) I realised I had forgotten my chamois cream – am must for a long ride. James saved my behind with his tube of DZ Nuts. We cruised briskly to the Takaozan start with Kevin and CJ who had arrived at midnight so were short of sleep – but they are lawyers – where we met up with the rest of the team (Jerome, James M, Chris, Yair and Stephen).
You will see from the photo that Kevin has an „interesting“ way of carrying his food for a ride, especially the banana. I was reminded of the scene from the classic movie „This is Spinal Tap“ in which the drummer of the heavy metal band goes through an airport security X-ray machine with a zucchini wrapped in aluminium foil down the front of his spandex trousers.
At this stage I should dwell on the word team for a moment. We gathered at the start but in true PE fashion, that was the only time we were together. As planned James M shot off like a cheetah with his backside in flames. I saw him as he turned out of the car park but then could not distinguish his blinking rear light from all the red lights flashing at the roadworks. He was gone. The rest of the group went off at a fast pace but split into 2 groups. Jerome was ahead over the top and off with the front group. At one stage some of the riders around him remonstrated about his riding style (traffic lights?) and received the true Gallic response of „le bras d’honneur„.
On the way to the first check point just before the entrance to the Sasago tunnel CJ and Kevin were strong and seemed full of beans. However a combination of little sleep and a puncture caused them to fall back and continue at their own pace. James K, Chris, Stephen and me came up behind a group of local riders who were very fast off the traffic lights. We had to accelerate hard to keep up from each red light before settling in behind and enjoying the tow. Assuming they were a group of friends we let them rotate amongst themselves. Included in their number was a petite non-male rider who was every bit as quick as all the others and she took her turn at the front. It was only when chatting at one set of lights that I realised none of them knew each other until about 4:30 that morning so the PE train took over with Stephen taking a strong and long pull. For a man like Stephen this ride seemed like a gentle Sunday afternoon stroll in the park. He had after all cycled from London to Tokyo. However, at this stage we did not know that a dodgy curry had led to a case of Montezuma’s Revenge. This led him to fall behind midway through the ride as he paid one of his twelve visits to the little boys‘ room. To his credit he caught up and we were to ride the final stage together.
The road led us through Matsumoto City’s Strip Mall from Hell. Always on the alert for cars turning left into a store car park without checking mirrors. There were a couple of very close shaves and then a lunatic in a grey Honda Odyssey twice accelerated and swerved aggressively in front of me. Watch out for said madman, license plate Matsumoto 500 45-92.
This was a long ride so food and drink were important. Some may have eaten too much at the outset and suffered. Jerome says he didn’t feel good for the first 100kms even though he went off ahead. When I asked whether he was armed with his trademark eggs he said he had six of them so I felt the diesel would fire up at some stage. I worked to hang on to him and an until-then-miserable Japanese man with an annoying bell hanging under his saddle who kept trying to get away from us but who we would catch at red lights. Once he realised he couldn’t get away he accepted Jerome’s wheel and life became much easier for him and he became friendly.
After about 200km some started to flag and needed food. We found ourselves on what must be one of the few roads in Japan without a convenience store. We were getting desperate so would have settled for a chain other than the PE approved 7-11. We eventually found a 7-11 and refueled and rested. The picture below is of a tired man who had returned from a business trip at 11pm on Friday night, not slept as he had to prepare his bike to spend his Saturday riding 300km (edited: thanks to Pro-Dave for the correction). These Israelis are tough….
Once again the Van Houten Cocoa did wonders for me and from then on I felt great. After we restarted Jerome said he needed time to digest his food so we rode at a ’normal‘ pace. After about 10km he announced it was time to test his legs. He invited me to sit on his wheel and he pounded the pedals of his day-glow yellow 17 year old Peugeot tri-bike. We overtook a rider who had passed us a few minutes earlier and I invited him to get on my wheel. We flew along at 48-50km/h and the man behind me must have thought Christmas had come early as we blasted past several groups including a couple of teams. At the next check point we had a huge smile on his face and thanked us profusely before going on his way. The finish was only about 50km from the last check point so spirits were high again. We left as a group and rode fast together, usually with Jerome on the front. The orange PE train picked up a few thankful riders as it sped towards Itoigawa. The tunnels were no fun at all but otherwise the views were stunning. Jerome had his head down and was pouring on the power. Later I asked him whether he could see much when using the tri-bars as from behind it looked like he had his head down. He told me that he looks up from time to time to see the road ahead! Apparently there were lots of paragliders up in the air but I saw none as I was so focused on Jerome’s back wheel, clinging on for dear life.
Tunnels are never fun but when they are long, have a rough surface and there are short-tempered truck drivers who had already had to negotiate a few hundred cyclists on the road earlier around, they are definitely not fun. In one tunnel there was what sounded like an outburst of machine-gun fire which turned out to be a broken spoke in James‘ back wheel. Such power it must take……… Once we regrouped outside the tunnel and he ‚fixed‘ his bike it felt like we would just cruise to the finish and look for a photo opportunity or two.
In this last leg of the ride we were overtaken at quite high speed by a one-armed cyclist. In the ofuro (hot bath) afterwards a Japanese rider told me that this individual is famous in Japan. He is also a strong climber. Whereas he would be lighter it must be difficult to balance when going up a hill. For those who might be wondering about improving their climbing ability, an arm weighs a little over 3kg (The total arm mass is given as mean 3.216kg with a standard deviation of 0.464kg – from Clauser, „Weigth, volume, and center of mass of segments of the human body“, 1969, p.45).
The end came sooner than we expected and was a bit anti-climactic. We could see the town of Itoigawa a few kms ahead down on the coast but out of nowhere baton-man appeared to guide us into the Hotel Itoigawa grounds and the finish. James M was sitting there, showered, changed with a beer. He was disappointed to have taken more than 9 hours including all stops thanks to a blow out after being hit by a bird. He discovered that the small group he couldn’t keep up with after a while were…….. Japanese Olympic riders. It turns out he placed 26th overall and would have made the top 10 without this mishap. A tremendous performance from James ‚Dave the PRO‘ M. The rest of us ex the sleep deprived lawyers finished in 12 1/2 hours of which 10 hrs were in the saddle. It was not a race but apparently we placed a little better than halfway amongst the 500 entrants.
The finish: Coppi and Gimondi with road-dirt
and a tifoso….. (not really, below is James who got me into all this anyway)