LAND OF THE RIDING SUN
Email pinged; newsletter; CyclingTips – must be another of their usual community reach-out drops, or not. This drop emitted a different pull. It drew my soul like Frodo and The One Ring to Eye of Sauron. For the record, Samwise Gamgee is the bloody hero in the trilogy. Period.
Japan. 1 week. Cycling. Heck YAS. The persistent whinging eventually broke Esther and one balmy night with our doona kicked off the sides of our bed right before sleep, her words “1. Japan 2. New Bike 3. House – do it”. What a keeper.
As soon as the itinerary and ride profiles were released, I could feel my pulse resonate through my jugulars – 700km/14,000vm/6 days. With an event such as these, there must always be a kicker and one much like taking Hitmonlee’s lanky jump kicks to the face – 215km/5600m on the last day; the Japanese 3 Peaks up Mount Fuji.
An Asian upbringing had dog-whipped me deep about the pit-falls of complacency and only hard work. There was no place for that in the profound cultivation to adulthood – thank you papa.
With less than 4 months to departure, I didn’t want to leave anything up to chance. So I battled the warmth of my doona for frosty dark morning training (read: BOM forecasts) mainly around Zwift. I am a simple-minded guy when it comes to riding – just one more pedal. The thing I took away most was the will to suffer when I really could not be bothered.
Armed with a few dozen climbs of Alpe d’Zwift, and a handful of SBC stickers, there’s no amount of readiness enough for the rides ahead.
DAY ZERO: LANDFALL
Having jumped out of my mother’s womb into an environment of tropical sweat storm by default, humidity wasn’t a stranger to me – until now. I didn’t last the terminal walk to customs before my armpits needed some breathing space and a marbled two-tone shade appeared down the back of me tee. Because social, my first stop would be a freewheeling meeting with a few of the crew for some townie bike action.
DAY ONE: TOKYO → MATSUMOTO
Day one was mostly a day reserved for train transfers, under the watchful guide of Bade from ConnectSport, navigating us through the rail networks, careful not to lose any of his flock amongst the sea of commuters.
The ‘sleep-in’ is but a myth for this East Asian country. Not even a Sunday morning proves any relief to the public transport system as we made our way to our destination for the day; the historic ancient town of Matsumoto.
City & Prefecture: Matsumoto/Nagano
Population: 241,102 +/-
Local Attraction: Matsumoto Castle (Matsumotojo)
• • •
Matsumoto (think Bright for Victorian’s) sits in a basin of mountains and serves as a primo base for tackling the northern Japanese Alps in each direction. And much like Bright, skiing and snowboarding for winter and cycling or hiking for the summer dominate the outdoor activities.
Bonus add-ons come in the form of Onsen, where unlike our local hot springs, nakedness is the absolute minimum – it’s definitely a personal favourite, even if it means running the risk of high core temperatures within le sac. Trust the Lord with your offsprings and take a dip.
Pro-tip: Neck up, don’t stare and be casual about it.
Much of the townships’ architecture preserves the Muromachi/Edo period, with a mix of modernism thrown in for good measure.
To ensure we were not thrown into the deep end of all the riding this land had to offer, Bade and Adam (from RideJapan) organised a small taster of the roads and drop in humidity level once everyone had checked in. Originally planned for 58km and 500m of climbing, the route was cut short as lengthy train transfers took a toll on t-rex chiselled cyclists - our combined sweat enough to reforest the Nullarbor.
DAY TWO: THE VENUS LINE
The menu? A day of climbing 3000m in just 120km. Nothing to be sneezed at with even the freshest of legs. The relatively unbeknownst to us gaijins Utsukushigahara climb topping out at 2,200m in altitude with an ascent gain of 1,200m thankfully kicks off at the 5km mark for 22km average 6%.
It became evidently clear that the Japanese engineer their roads with the sickest sense of humour that makes the holiest of cyclists cuss on the 15% ramps. Think jerk, less jerk and jerk for every sustained climb. It doesn’t matter the average gradient, nor the length, that’s how they beat you into saikeirei.
As swift as the opening ramp dishes out pain, it rewards you with a brief respite to admire the brilliant blue of Lake Misuzu (probably comes as close what I imagine to feel when entering the world of Narnia, because this road took us deep into the magical lushness of Japanese forestry).
Like a gladiator knowing his destiny in a Colosseum death-match, the road punched out beyond the cloudlines and into a rolling plateau of 3.5km butter-smooth tarmac; hugging the mountain on one side, opening views on the other.
For members of the off-road cult, the final 3km of cut up ‘groads’ to the Ougatour summit would have you challenging for lines that will poke fire from the crew for cutting them off. The descend after serves up a treat, shooting adrenaline straight into the eyeballs, although wide enough for 69 riders abreast, descending mixed hardpacked and loose, fist-sized gravel all while dodging the occasional trail walker.
Surviving the gravel descent and prepare for the main course; the Venus Line. And Mamma Mia! It’s a real proper stretch of rolling mountain roads, followed by a series of 11 tight hairpins to send Nibali giddy before half-mooning Lake Suwa – think Albert Park later on steroids.
Most of us thought Lake Suwa was the curtain call for the day, so we celebrated with pints of Aquarius. Like Caleb Ewan’s premature celebration in Abu Dhabi, we were duly informed of a bump that lies between Lake Suwa and our hotel – an 8km climb up Takabochi Skyline road that takes us from our resting point of 900m back up to 1600m.
Laboured breathing and ultra-grindage of gears, everyone suffered in their own way up, and everyone was rewarded by the single out-of-nowhere vending machine at the summit. God bless this vending machine. Visit Melbourne, take note.
But what goes up, must come down, and down we went with a 21km straight. No catch, no bullshit. We descended back to our hotel…for real this time.
DAY THREE: THE HIGASHICHIKUMA PARADOX
On paper, the distance and elevation gain closely resembled the Mt Pleasant loop at 56km/1200m; but eff-me-dead, we felt like puppets dancing for the sickest minds of Japanese road engineers. The happy trade-off? The lack of traffic on these quiet winding roads; appreciated as every last ounce of brain juice wringed into undivided attention on our pins. The first summit came at Naganimeyama – an unobstructed view of the Japanese Alps, a valley of paddy fields and a glimpse of Hakuba (the following day’s toil).
Bade and Adam knew that we’d had our fair share of cars on the road back home. With their local knowledge, we were led through traffic-free undulating roads unassumingly hidden in the thick greenery – just a slog over cow corner away from the city.
DAY FOUR: THE HAKUBA OLYMPIC TTT
Town & Prefecture: Hakuba/Nagano
Population: 8,789 +/-
Local Attractions: All 10 Ski Resorts
• • •
A seemingly easy day before, meant a harder one to follow for our final day in Matsumoto – 170km and 2100m of climbing. The warm-up pinch shook the snooze out of the crew, kicking us off with an uncharacteristically gradual 25km from 600m to 1,100m. The climb would push us past fields of wasabi, rice and sake - irrigated by the melting snow caps of the alps.
With the gradient eased on us for the first half, we were able to nek level appreciate the roads and views bestowed upon us.
As the humidity gently crept up on us, the legs began to pay. In a big to get us home in time for dinner, Adam and Bade decided on a 15km TTT for a spot of ‘fun’ on an uninterrupted flat course along the edge of the Takase River. I did absolutely no work on the front and still got pumped out the ass while ex-Keirin guest rider Ken-san screwed me to world’s end with all his selfies. Bragging rights below zero.
DAY FIVE: MATSUMOTO TO MOUNT FUJI
Another day mostly spent on the commute, the north-south train transfers were an experience of traversing through mountain passes and gawking at Mt Fuji in full view; which is like scoring a free ticket to the cinema in a front row seat, where normal peripheral vision is insufficient.
DAY SIX: FUJI THREE PEAKS
Town & Prefecture: Fujikawaguchiko/Yamanashi
Population: 25,742 +/-
Local Attractions: Views of Mount Fuji (duh)
• • •
This day had been on the mind of every rider since the beginning of times, and the end of times. Props to everyone who rocked ‘adult’ cycling mode and made sure to leave enough in the tank for Fuji-san…but what is enough?
Not too dissimilar from our Australian 3 Peaks challenge (215km/5,500m), there are 3 climbs up Fuji-san – except they’re all up the same mountain. The 23.4km Subaru Line, the 26.4km Skyline Road and the 11km Azami climb; each inflicting a world of hurt by their psychopathic makers. The catch? We only had a 12-hour time limit for daylight (safety).
23.4km and 1200m is not anything extraordinary. Uneasy spots of gradients here and there, but when the road broke above the distant tree-lines, I had a realisation – I still could not fathom the enormity of this mountain despite my physical presence, completely surreal.
Holding a gentlemanly pace and keeping conversations flowing, we were promptly reminded by Wade that the current pace will force us an early turnaround before summit. With a new tempo, I made it to the top (barely) with 5 minutes to down a banana and snap a cultural inoffensive piccy to present an ‘omage to the SBC.
At it’s best, Skyline Road is an illusionist. In the second half, it rears its devil horns.
15km of rollers is sure to disrupt any form of rhythm or pacing. Consequences were felt on the left turn up towards the remaining 11km as the fatigue in my leaden legs had me pining for 2 more teeth in the rear cog like an elusive monthly payday. 5km from the top, some ‘very quick math’ told me I was cutting it too close.
While everyone had their price on Fuji-san 3 Peaks for the day, it was merely a side mission to me – the main quest was to have our SBC footprints firmly planted on this mountain on every ascent; and I was rapidly running out of options.
Then came the 4km sign. Bless up.
If Skyline didn’t finish me off, Azami certainly cleaned me up proper. From kilometre zero we were now at 165km and 4200m, my empty legs on the #32tBigDog wasn’t a good sign. I was already in waist-deep shit from the get go. As I was getting myself silently acquainted with Azami line, there was a figure on the roadside 6km in. No mistake it was an Asian, which means local. Don’t ask – after living 29 years of Asian life, I just know. A hi-bye grimacing smile will do, no time for tea and Linkedin deep chit chat.
So I did. And he did too, with a sunshine smile I wish I could have traded him for trashed legs. Then he rode my pace, clearly indicating his desire to chat. With my brokenness of broken Japanese from years of anime and his high school level English, he kept my demons at bay for the next 5.5km. Turns out this was RinRin-kun’s second time up Fuji-san, and he proudly proclaimed his hate for this climb.
I believed him wholeheartedly.
The level of infamy Azami Line had amassed for itself on the world wide web does not need another introduction. The Climbing Cyclist penned some very fine details the brutality of this climb – a highly recommended read for anyone prior to the attempt. Just as I unashamedly did.
CBF-ness was real, and the #dronesuptop was undeniably fitting.