So I bought a rather nice road-race bicycle (Canyon Ultimate CF 8.0) on a trip to Germany and brought it to Japan. Getting bored on short trips inside Tokyo, MOB finally made some time between his busy racing schedule in October and took me on a trip to Izu. It was a hard 100km from Mishima to Shimoda, but I managed to keep up without annoying MOB too much. We started doing more rides together in the mountains west of Tokyo.
Initially I thought „let’s make the most of it before the winter sets in and more cycling won’t be possible“. But then it became clear that winter was no barrier to cycling, and as I started seeing my performance and endurance improving, I wanted to stay on the trajectory. From January, I switched to riding twice a week, almost no matter what. I think I managed to keep this rhythm perfectly until the concurrent onset of the rainy season and tons of professional work, mostly in Osaka, made regular weekday rides impossible.
My first race had been a misery. MOB invited me to a second one, around Saiko, and I did much better. It was a strenuous race and I was not able to keep up well in the uphill section. But somehow I still made it into finish just seven seconds behind the winner (in the E-class). This gave me some confidence that if I improved my performance, I could keep up in races and repeat what MOB had done that year: win the championship by mere attendance of every race and avoiding to be disqualified. Little knew I then that the rules were to be changed for 2009 and that the bar was to rise significantly. Ignorance can be the mother of opportunities.
This is a point race on a short and completely flat racing track in a park (i.e. points are awarded for being among the top three in every second lap, then additional points for the overall finish). It should be relatively easy to keep up with the peleton. Ideally I would somehow manage to do so well in the sprinting that I would be among the first six and be able to move up into D-class.
Until 2008, finishing meant literally finishing a race, i.e. not crashing and not being lapped. From 2009, the rules were tightened and not only should one not crash and not be lapped, but one must also finish no later than 10% behind the time the tenth rider of the race made into the finish. So even in short races where the chances of being lapped are low, losing the benefit of the peleton could lead one to finish a race without any points.
When moving to a higher class, one carries forward all points awarded to date. Because those already in the higher class have had a chance to collect higher participation points for longer, the later one moves up, the smaller the chance one can actually win the class. But it is also hard to make predictions, because the best riders tend to move up themselves and thus out of one’s class, and because most people do not participate in all races.
The Kawagoe race started badly before it had started. As I was watching an earlier race, two riders crashed just after sprinting through the finish right in front of me. I decided to wear my thicker, long-sleeved jersey instead of the PE jersey. As we assembled for the warm-up lap, someone in the still ongoing race had a tyre blow-out right in front of us.
My race was no better. People had difficulty keeping the line through the long left curve followed by an immediate right curve just after the start. It was scary. Then someone crashed on one of these nasty bumpy wire covers that run in places across the track. I narrowly avoided running into the heap of riders, by breaking sufficiently hard to slow down and then navigate around the
mess, yet not hard enough to have others crashing into me. But by that time I was very scared, and became so careful that I lost contact with the peleton. I managed to catch up again driving my heart rate to unknown peaks (170 at the time). Another crash, though not right in front of
me. No chance to even think of sprinting in the even laps, with so many riders in front of me, the course being so narrow and a tight curve just before the finish.
curve, I saw the left side all wide open, so zoomed through it as fast as I could, taking the final curve as narrow as possible. I sprinted in vain trying to catch up with the leading riders, but still finished a respectable 10th, which translated into 15th on the point ranking. 39.49km/h over a flat 12km (total race time of 0:18:14).
I left the place to ride home, swearing I would never ride there again.
The opposite of Kawagoe – the steepest race track in the JCRC season (except for the Shiobara hill climb). With far fewer people participating, and probably those participating being far more talented at riding bikes, and the not so good ones falling behind quickly on the climbs, this should be a safer ride. If it wasn’t for the fact that someone had died on this very tra
ck, crashing into a tree. But this was, as I realized only later, when racing into the opposite direction which has many downhill curves (JCRC Race No. 7). Nonetheless, this is even a dangerous course in anti-clockwise direction, due to the high downhill speeds, as the arrival of a doctor helicopter during the race showed.
MOB and I had visited the track a few days earlier, and I had done a full lap in a decent time, despite being on my own and on a heavily equipped bike. I felt confident I could do well, maybe even still get into the first six.
The first lap worked out well. I kept up with the leaders even though the climbs were gruelling. But in the second, I couldn’t keep up any longer on the final long climb and came in 8th, 42 seconds after the winner. But this was good enough to be now leading the E-class in points. 31.33km/h over a mountainous 10km (0:19:09).
Going to races outside Tokyo is always a good opportunity to do some nice riding in a new area afterwards. Of course this only works if one travels to races by trains and bike (sometimes including overnight accommodation), avoiding carrying anything unnecessary.
After this race, I cycled from the Shuzenji race track to Hakone and then on to Odawara. Very nice views of the Izu mountains, the Hakone mountains and Fuji-san all along (if only the weather had been better), and quite some climbing to keep working on my performance (races themselves are too short to have much impact).
JCRC Race No. 3 – Gunma (18 April)
The course of my very first race, with quite some up and down, including a slightly longer climb. But having survived Shuzenji quite well, I felt I could keep up with the peleton in this race. My goal was to come in as 4th, the idea being that this way I would get maximum points without being forcefully put into the next higher class (D-class). Having missed the opportunity to make the D-class in the two previous races and therefore being behind in total points (the higher the class, the larger the number of participation points awarded), I thought I should focus on becoming E-class champion.
All worked well – and I became 4th! 35.24km/h over a hilly 24km (0:40:52).
What a great feeling to be in the award ceremony for the first time, get a certificate and even a prize: two inner tubes. Little knew I that the rules had changed and with the 4th place I was now automatically in D-class and no longer had a right to decline, and little knew I how valuable those tubes would prove to be. And of course little knew I that ending up in D-class was for the better!
Hardly seriously exhausted from four laps on the track, I ventured to discover the mountains of Gunma. The plan was to cycle to Minakami and then all the way up to Konroku Toge at 1,600m, then return via route 120 to Numata. The Tone River valley up towards Konroku Toge proved to be stunningly beautiful, especially the higher I got. But that was partly because the higher I got, the more snow there was! Having ignored an earlier barrier, I found myself on a road with increasingly high snow on each side, soon reaching over one meter. The road itself had been cleared. Eventually I reached a point where the road continued in 1.5 high snow, so I had to turn around.
On the way down I ran through lots of little creeks of melt water running over the road, and going through one of them I hit a sharp stone that caused me my first and so far only puncture of my road-race cycling career. How glad I was I had these extra tubes just won at the race – otherwise I would have had to fiddle with patches which would have been less pleasant as it was getting again cooler.
I vowed to return after the next Gunma race and make it up Konroku Toge.
With almost two months to go before the next race, there was plenty of opportunity to discovery new territory, all over Japan. When my parents visited around Golden Week, I had them man my support vehicle which allowed me to do some great rides in stunny scenery.
JCRC Race No. 4 and Tour du Japon Race No. 2 – Miyakejima (14 June)
This race takes place on a small island 300 kilometers off Tokyo. The island is basically one big volcano, which exploded 20 years ago and led to the evacuation of the island. The islanders are now back, but there are still frequent gas scares – though nobody has ever been harmed, by the initial explosion or since.
Access to the island is by daily ferry from Tokyo. There are also daily flights by an ANA daughter, and I wanted to be clever and use my miles to go by plane instead of suffering on an overnight ferry arriving at 5am.
What ANA or Lufthansa didn’t tell me is, that at least half of the time, the plane never takes of from Haneda because the air at the other end is deemed to be potentially too poisonous. I ended up going in vein to Haneda and thus missing the first part of the race, a short hill climb. Lufthansa and ANA still dispute that they carry any responsibility for not telling me, equating this with the extremely rare cancellation of a plane due to bad weather.
I took the ferry to Miyakejima after all, just one day late. It was a 24-hour day-trip to the second part of the race: leave home at 20:00, ferry leaving 22:00, arriving 5:00, cycling to the village on the other side of the island where the race was to be held, race from 10:00, solo ride around the island thereafter (a bit over 30km with some up and down and heavy wind in places), back at the village at 12:00, on the ferry at 14:00, back in Tokyo around 19:00 and home by 20:00.
Only 120 or so riders make it to Miyakejima, which is about a tenth of some other races. The event feels more like a family party and it is easy to make friends with other riders.
My D-class race had 11 riders of which three gave up mid-race. The pace was gruelling, and with so few riders the benefit of drafting was low. The peleton fell apart after the 5th lap, and I managed to hang on to 2-3 other riders, eventually drafting one of them through the final lap and overtaking him and another rider ahead on the sprint up a steep slope into the finish. I was 5th, and with so few riders in the race had the option to decline going to C-class which I took advantage of. I was now leading the D-class – and would continue doing so until the end of the season.
33.29km/h over a hilly 20km (0:36:03).
JCRC Race No. 5 and Tour du Japon Race No. 3 – Hitachinaka (28 June)
Another flat race, this time on a long oval car-testing track. Another blood bath. Just fortunately not in my own race, just some scary scenes – lucky once more.
Apart from sheer crash-free survival, my goal was to end up with as many points as possible without getting among top six. This is hard to manage in a race where the final sprint decides everything and it is harder to control one’s own position just before the finish line. So I decided to make it my goal to win one of the so called JCRC prizes for being among the top three in the penultimate round. Another rider who seemed to have rather too much power left broke out from the field 500m before the finish line and having just waited for something like this to happen, I was swift to follow him and draft him at amazing speed to the finish line. We were both exhausted and let the field catch up with us for the final lap.
I wanted to do the same thing again in the final lap, just make sure I wouldn’t get in similarly well placed. The same guy broke out again and I followed, but then regretted as it was the wrong tactic. I let myself fall behind and caught up by the field, but was then too exhausted to keep up with them, ending up only 26th (but just three seconds behind the winner!). 41.39km/h over a flat 30km (0:43:29).
After the race, I rode south through rural Ibaraki to the large Kasumigaura Lake, intending to ride once around it (which by itself would be over 100km). Unfortunately, the weather worsened and I ended up in heavy rain, having to abort my trip half way around the lake and taking an endless train trip home.
JCRC Race No. 6 – Gunma (19 July)
Six laps around a by now very familiar course, but this time in D-class. Would that make a big difference? Indeed the pace was slightly faster, but I felt well equipped to keep up throughout, including the longer climb.
I went for the same goal as in the previous race: get the JCRC prize. This time I managed to be first and could call three pairs of JCRC socks my own, as well as a nice photo shot with the race winners.
But just like in Hitachinaka that sprint cost me energy which I needed for the final sprint. I came in 14th, seven seconds behind the winner. 36.32km/h over a hilly 36km (0:59:28).
After another race in Gunma, this was now the chance to finally assail Konroku Toge (1,600m) and then try to make it up Konsei Toge (1,800m, up from 700m) to reach the Nikko lakes and eventually Nikko. It was again a very nice ride up the Tonegawa valley, this time without any natural barriers. By the time I had reached Katashima village at the other end, the weather had worsened significantly, and I ended up climbing the 1,100m to Konsei Toge in heavy rain, at 16 degrees. I saved myself the rain cover for the long downhill to the lakes and into Nikko, when the rain had stopped, but being soaked, I didn’t feel exactly warm… Still it was worth the trip, and the lakes worth another visit a few months later, after the Shiobara hill climb race.
JCRC Race No. 7 – Shuzenji (23 August)
I imagined this to be the toughest race of the season: six laps on this tough mountain course, at the very hottest time of the year, and now in D-class. Earlier in the year, I had barely kept up in just two laps one class lower. Outlooks were made worse by unpredictably and often rainy weather throughout the summer, making it hard to train adequately.
I left for a week of boot camp at my parents‘ home in Germany. Earlier in the year, I had bought another Canyon for use in Germany and beyond, whenever/whereever I could visit. This was the first opportunity to take real possession of the bike after a friend had collected it from the manufacturer a few months earlier. This was the cheapest road racer Canyon has on offer: Roadlite 5.0 – aluminium frame with Shimano 105 components, Mavic Aksium wheels. I immediately felt very comfortable on it. In fact, the stiffness of the frame made me feel more comfortable going downhill at over 70km/h than I do on my carbon Canyon. The 105 brakes and gears work perfectly, the Aksium wheels run just as well as my more expensive ones in Japan. If only the bike was a bit lighter (8.7 vs 6.9kg) and the crankset (Shimano R600 – the only crime on the bike) not showing so much resistance (I have since ordered FSA MegaExo as replacement).
I did 650km in a week. On the 210km ride, the extra resistance and weight showed, and I felt more exhausted than I would in Japan. However, part of it may also be due to insufficient eating and drinking, as Germany lacks the network of convenience stores and drink machines which I so much benefit from in Japan.
The training paid off. I felt fine on the climbs and was able to keep up with the fastest riders. But it was tough – my average heart rate of the full race was 169, and 13% of the time I was between 175 and 180. I had never been able to keep anything as high as this for so long.
The field fell completely apart before long, not only because of the tough climbs, but also because of the dangerously curvy down hills which made me be careful – I didn’t want to be the second person ending up on a tree and dying there (or just crashing, as happened again plentiful to others that day). I came in 11th, 1:26 behind the winner. 30.72km/h over a mountainous 30km (0:48:50).
Being in Shuzenji offered another opportunity to explore yet inknown roads and passes on the Izu peninsula, including the famous Izu Skyline.
JCRC Race No. 8 – Shiobara (4 October)
This is a one-way race on public roads through the valley of Shiobara Onsen and then up a steep hill of 459m over 6.9km. I did not know what to expect. Surely I would be able to keep up with the peleton up to the start of the steep section. How well would I do on the climb?
Unfortunately, it started to rain lightly as I was cycling up from the hotel near the JR station to the start of the race. Not a good way of getting warm! The rain stopped again and the race started on yet wet roads. Only one lane was blocked for us, and we were facing traffic on the other – amazingly dangerous when racing in such a large field!
I kept up well with the field, but shorter climbs felt more strenuous than usual. Something was wrong. The hill climb was tough, and half of the field passed me pretty much immediately. I caught up with some later on, but felt not at the full height of my energy throughout, ending 20th, 2:24 behind the winner, but still comfortably within 10% of the 10th, below which no points are awarded (new rule from 2009). 23.86km over a rising 19.2km (0:48:16).
At that point, I did not understand what caused my slightly weak performance. I had trained well in the meantime, completing a ride from home to Karuizawa
, and riding from Chino through the southern Alps to Hamamatsu
. And I felt sufficiently strong to add a long ride after the race, which took me through the Kawamata area over Yamao Toge (1,700m) to the Nikko lakes and eventually close to Utsunomiya.
Two days later, I left for New York on a business trip, and started feeling ill as I was about the board the plane. It seemed I was getting a flu, developing a high fever. Eventually it turned out I had developed severe, acute prostatitis. This was exactly the kind of disease which I did not want to have – no more sitting on a saddle for a while! After more travel through Germany and Portugal, I ended up back in Japan the day before the next race – jet-lagged, tired, untrained and still pumped full with antibiotics, yet at least almost symptom-free.
I couldn’t just sit back and let the race pass, and my performance deteriorate further. I undid the cancellation of my minshuku reservation and went to Gunma on the same day I had arrived at Narita.
JCRC Race No. 9 – Gunma (18 October)
This is the toughest of the three races in Gunma, because it is the longest: 12 laps of a hilly 6km in D-class, 72km in total. My sole goal was to keep up with the peleton and make it into the finish to collect my points. In the worst case somehow keep cycling for as long as possible and get some training into my body.
I ended up in between. I was still too weak and struggled to keep up on the longer climbs, and after them didn’t get the power together to do some catching up on the down hills and flats. I lost the peleton in the 6th lap, with still more than half of the race to go. This was a tough situation to be in: without the benefit of the draft and the motivation to keep up maximum speed, I would continue to fall behind, and risk being lapped eventually. Knowing too well, I powered through on my own, and made it into the 12th lap, probably just half a minute ahead of the peleton getting into finish. Now I was safe from being lapped, but I still was in danger of not coming in within 10% of the 10th (who would have been in the peleton) and thus not gaining any points. As long as I kept my speed, I was safe – the 13th so to speak of 12 laps should be shorter than 10% of those 12 laps. I kept it up and finished ahead of the cut-off, as 37th, 10 minutes behind the winner. By far my worst performance, but I had secured another 60 points, and with them I was far enough ahead to win the championship even if I crashed in one out of the two remaining races. 33.09km/h over a hilly and mostly lonely 72km (2:10:33).
No ride after this race – 72km on the track was sufficient training and I was still not sure whether I had done my prostate a favour.
JCRC Race No. 10 and Tour du Japon Race No. 4 – Yokkaichi (25 October)
Another hilly street course, far away from Tokyo. I checked out the course after registration on the previous day and completed it at a relatively leisurely pace in a decent time. I was confident I was back in form and would be able to keep up with the peleton on the long climb soon after the start and do the same once more in the second lap. In any case, all I needed was to arrive before the cut-off – with the minimum points I would be unassailable JCRC Champion 2009, even without participating in the remaining last race.
Indeed, everything worked smoothly – except for someone slipping twice right in front of me, in the tight corner just before the finish sprint. I managed to avoid them each time, and entered the final sprint in a leading position (except for two riders who had broken out some time ago). But I did not want to end up among the first six! So I slowed down during the sprint and made sure a few riders would pass me. Being unable to time this perfectly, I ended up 9th, 17 seconds behind the winner. 37.00km/h over a hilly 18km (0:29:12).
I was JCRC Champion! A dream had become true.
I left for a celebration ride, intending to make the most out of my time in Yokkaichi by crossing into adjacent Shiga-ken and from there through another mountain pass further north back into Mie-ken. This turned out to be quite an adventure. Buhei Toge was shown as a national highway on maps, but when I had climbed it half way up through a side road, further access was blocked. I asked a cyclist coming down on the forbidden side. Yes, it was possible to ride up another 3km or so, but then there was a huge landslide, impossible to pass. Normally I don’t take this for a word and know that almost any landslide or construction can be circumvented, but this time somehow I sensed this was different. I cycled up with the firm intention of turning around and returning to Tokyo early.
The landslide was indeed massive. So massive that it was clearly impossible or at least extremely dangerous to attempt to walk over it. But then I noticed a hiking path that seemed to lead around it, and indeed, having carried my bike for five minutes up a steep hill (I know why I’m using SPD pedals!), I ended up back on the road, beyond the landslide. I had a well built-out kokudo all for myself, up to the tunnel pass, and then all the way down into Shiga-ken.
After a lunch break in the first village, I crossed over north along the lower slopes of the mountain ridge I had just crossed. Quite a bit of up and down, but very scenic, and very quiet. Eventually I reached the next kokudo that would lead over Ishigure Toge back into Mie-ken. According to the maps. Somehow I found it strange that there was relatively little traffic on this national highway, despite the one further south having been closed. Soon I reached a sign saying that the road was closed further ahead, due to landslides… Oh no! If this was really true (for a change), this meant real trouble, as going even further north to the next pass would take so much time that I would never make it back to Yokkaichi (where I had left my luggage) in day-light.
I asked a shop owner and she swore the road was really closed, but when pushed said that some hikers had managed to get through, but that it had been very tough. Hmm, that didn’t sound very reassuring. But I felt I had no choice as the alternative was not appealing.
As I cycled up, a police car overtook me. I was hoping they weren’t going to check whether I was going to enter the forbidden section. I passed repeated signs that the road was closed and it was not allowed to proceed, but no actual barriers, so I went on. No police car in sight. I was all by myself, climbing through a very long construction site. „So this is where the landslide was… As so often, already totally ready to be passed…“ Back on the old road, I approached a new tunnel being drilled through the mountain. I took the old road to climb up further, despite worrying signs warning of landslides and road closure. Indeed, I came across what looked like small landslides that had been tidied up recently. And then the police car approached me, from ahead! I nodded friendly, and they didn’t stop. It felt reassuring to see the police allowing me to go that far, and apparently even further.
After lots of curves , I finally reached the pass. Well, what used to be a pass. It was blocked by concrete blocks, making it impossible for anyone but pedestrians, or a bicycle, to pass.
I went down on the other side. The road was in horrible condition. And after the first bent a big landslide covering the full breadth of the road, having torn away parts of it.
I walked over it and rolled down further. The next landslide. The same spectacle would continue, countl
ess times. But there was a hiker going downhill on the same road… I was reassured tha
t if that person could get down, so could I, if need be on foot. An
d so I made it through landslide after landslide, none too scary not to pass over them.
Eventually, I got to the other side of the newly built tunnel, and from there it was a fast autobahn run down into the valley, and another 35km back to Yokkaichi.
JCRC Race No. 11 and Tour du Japon Race No. 5 – Saiko (8 November)
As I was already JCRC champion for 2009, I could have skipped this very last race of the season. However, it offered the chance to go for an outright race win, something I had to avoid before not to be upgraded into the C-class and possibly not have sufficient points any longer to become champion (though in retrospect it turned out I had more points than both the C-class and B-class champions). Also, there was still the Tour du Japon rating where I was only a distant second and with the last race offering double points, a very strong showing by myself and a mediocre one by the leading contender could still make me Tour du Japon Champion.
So the dream was to win the race and cash in not only a first prize for a race, but also two championships. But dreams become rarely true – in so many races I
had started thinking I could do well and ended up not quite where I wanted. In this race, it was all down to saving energy for the first 19km and then having the right tactic for the final sprint, on an uphill section. My tactic was simple: never go first, always draft behind others, and switch always behind the fastest riders pulling ahead. All of this on an uphill section where hopefully not all riders could keep up with the pace (or as it turned out would crash!) so the field would become thinner, making it easier to find space to switch places.
Somehow it worked out exactly as planned. All I had to do is to pull together all my energy without going into overdrive and running out of steam too early, and then sprinting away over the last 200m. I could not believe it! Another dream, and this time a really unexpected one, had become true! And how nice to hear my name being announced over the loudspeakers – „a foreigner had won, what a surprise!“ 41.19km/h over an almost flat 20km (0:29:08).
I was showered with medals, award certificates, winner jerseys and other presents for the bike in the subsequent ceremonies. What a nice feeling when one has never ever won anything in sports before. My results at school were always embarrassingly bad; I was never a star on the football or basketball pitch.
But now is the time to bow out of racing. Not only is it quite demanding to make sure one doesn’t miss attendance of these eleven races all over Japan, racing is also quite dangerous. I have seen many people crash, and at best nice bikes being ruined, at worst ambulances take away riders. Flat races in particular were orgies of blood, because they attract many riders who are too unskilled or inexperienced to ever be in a race. There are fewer of them in hilly races, and the remaining ones mostly fall behind the peleton and thus pose less of a risk to others. I was both sufficiently lucky and skilled to avoid any crashes (sometimes escaping sliding riders by a few centimeters), but I do not want to count on my luck for longer.
Instead I shall focus on riding purely for pleasure, and discovering new mountain passes and areas of Japan. It is becoming increasingly difficult to discover anything new in the vicinity of Tokyo, where I must by now know almost every mountain road up to 150-200km away from Tokyo. Most of my rides take me that far and thanks to the very efficient public transport system, I can easily return home by train, having packed up my bike in a small bag that I always carry with me (it’s like a parachut, letting me bail out whereever I want, as long as there is a train station).
In the 15 months since starting, I have ridden 14,000km in total – which compares to something like 16,000km which I have ridden in my previous 39 years (I’ve kept records!). I do want to fall back to the pace of my first 39 years, but I’m also unlikely to keep up this year’s pace. As long as I get sufficient exercise, discover new passes and have good company (not all necessarily always at the same time!), I shall be happy.
With my greatest thanks to MOB, without whom this would have never happened (starting it, buying the right gear, using it the right way, cycling the right roads, learning the right racing strategy, getting prepared for races, etc. etc.) and the larger PE and even TCC community,