Monthly Archives: January 2012

Group Hug

“If we huddle together really closely”, the big Swede suggested with a glint in his eye, “we could all get a lot warmer…”.

For the first time in many months, I had decided to join a group ride. A flat 200km route following a series of rivers, it wasn’t my usual choice for a day out cycling but the mountains were treacherous with snow and ice, and in any case I was yearning for some company on the bike for a change. No leisurely breaks, no chance to take photos, but still, great to feel the camaraderie of a half-dozen or so riders tackling the winter cold together.

River Fever

But now we were waiting, stamping our feet on an exposed river bank while one of our number worked on fixing his broken wheel. It had been almost an hour and the north wind howled down upon us, icy daggers slashing at flesh, our suffering off the bike far more intense than we had ever suffered on it. We couldn’t leave him of course – the “rules” required that there should be no man left behind. Tous pour un, un pour Tous, as the Musketeers would say. It was a question of loyalty, a matter of honour.

“You know” he said, pausing, “maybe I should start thinking of getting a train home”…

Yes ! We all thought, secretly relieved, At last ! Leave him ! There are limits, after all. I was tired of this monotonous river path and with still over 80km to go the sun was already sinking in the sky. Two riders had gone ahead, but one more was working there with his stranded friend, helping to make his bike ridable. Fine, leave him as well !

So now there were three. A jagged fence of snow capped mountains bridled the horizon to the North and West, whilst the dark grey silhouette of Mt Tsukuba dominated the skyline to the East. But that static hour in the cold had killed our enthusiasm and the ferocious tail wind did little to raise our spirits – we were all so sick of this damned river.

It was dusk when we reached the Arakawa, another companion splitting off for home, leaving just two of us, the Swede and I, to tackle the last long stretch of riverbank in the dark, nothing but a couple of weak bike lights illuminating the way immediately in front, our eyes straining for those evil patches of ice. And this time we were facing into the wind. When we went our separate ways it was late and we were both terribly cold, tired and hungry. It was difficult to tell in the low light, but I thought I caught a look of regret in his face as he waved goodbye, and I understood.

We had broken the rules, fragmenting the group, ignoring etiquette and leaving two comrades stranded, twenty miles from the nearest train station. But perhaps more than that, I felt sure I knew what he wanted to say; we should have huddled together when we all had the chance.

Panic !

Early Morning Urban Views

I woke up with a sudden start this morning, a residual image from the nightmare still etched vividly infront of me in the dark pre-dawn gloom of the bedroom: a hairy, spindly legged, pot bellied figure, wrapped outrageously in tight white lycra, riding an wholly undeserved expensive titanium bike, puffing away at the tail of a group of strong young riders. The red sweaty face turned towards me briefly before I was shocked wide awake.  Holy crap – it was me !

Between a spa trip and the miserable weather I hadn’t managed time for a ride last weekend, and this fact was starting to get to me. I’d been feeling listless, unfit and – oddly – feeling vaguely guilty for no good reason, like being eyed by security walking through the “nothing to declare” gate at customs, or talking in unnecessary detail to your wife about an innocent night out with friends.  “It’s only you” I whispered to my bike last night, reassuring her, “It’s always been you”.

So, in the dark bitterly cold morning, I fumbled around the spare room, pulling on layers of clothing – not white, mind you – pumping up the tires and getting my bag ready for work. “Cycle commuting day” I decided, and realising I had to make real amends for my inattention, “…I’ll take the Long Route”. This is my 55km roundabout way to work, a 25km stretch of sweet and pleasant river path, sandwiched by hard and sour crusts of city traffic either side.

But today, even that filling was hard and unpaletable:  sheets of ice covered the asphalt entirely in front of me. It took only a couple attempts carrying my bike up the riverbank and through patches of snow to know I’d be very very late for work, this way. Beaten, I turned around and cycled back home, weaving carefully though icy patches and the heavy rush hour traffic, the exhaust fumes of buses and trucks at least pushing some warmth into my lungs.

Showered, changed, and joining the other tortured corporate souls on the Chuo line into Tokyo, I was stuck in the train at a standstill for fifteen minutes. Probably a “jumper” I reasoned, waiting to be cleared up from the tracks. And stuck in limbo yet again later, waiting for the Yamanote line to start moving. I joined the Kehin-Tohoku line, like every other zombie with no other option, elbow to groin, packed like bruised sardines. And I arrived in work exactly four hours after getting out of bed.

I could never tell her of course, but some days,  well,  it just ain’t worth it.

Life and Death in Chichibu

North climb of Sadamine Toge

The fox lay dead in the undergrowth, neatly arranged and parallel to the road. It’s eyes and mouth were closed, and someone had carefully arranged an embroidered cloth over it’s body from midway of it’s tail to it’s neck like a shroud, pristine white. This is Chichibu – animal spirits live in these hills and hundreds of shrines celebrating them are scattered deep in the forests. This was no simple roadkill to be left festering on the centre line. This fox demanded dignity in it’s death.

Dawn on the Arakawa

I had originally planned a short early ride up the Arakawa river, still feeling the residue of the heavy cold and fever I’d suffered as a consequence of last week’s 190km madness. It was dark when I left, my favorite time, when the first hour is spent anticipating what kind of sunrise will follow. Braziers burned red on the edge of the baseball diamonds spread along the river’s wide floodplain – obsessed parents, arriving far too early to set up for their sons’ baseball games later. Too distant to feel the heat; but just the smell of the burning wood and the sound of the crackle of the embers still warmed me a little. The sun came up – not bad, a little cloudy, but the pale orange and yellows were enough to convince me it would be a waste of a perfectly decent day to turn back now. The temperature was below freezing and the charcoal grey clouds on the horizon turned Fuji-san into an artful black and white sketching. I knew already that in days like this in the mountains, the Gods come out to check their domain. And, I knew, there were few better places for it than in Chichibu. So the decision was made.

The Chichibu Hills

A glorious crisp winter’s morning, chilling but clear of snow and ice – there had been no precipitation for well over a week and the only visible clue to the cold was the frost on the fields and the roof of their owner’s farmhouses. I rode deeper into the hills and climbed Sadamine Toge, deliberately taking it very easy – today would be another “long slow distance” ride, keeping my hear rate low. A Keiren rider leisurely overtook me, and we exchanged greetings: “Ohayo !”. He was tucked low into his handlebars, pushing a heavy gear at an excruciating slow and measured cadence. I tailed him for a while around the curves of the road before letting him go on.  Later on, a family of “saru”, Japanese monkeys, descended the steep slope on my right, trotted one by one across the road and down into the thicket on the left, a few lingering to forage by the roadside. Drawn back lips and a mouthful of fangs greeted my attempt to take a closer look at the nearest one. He shoved his ripe red arse in my field of view and loped off.

Hairy and Angry

On the second climb, Yamabushi Toge, an ambulance blazed past me, siren sounding, and soon after that I arrived at the accident scene – a motorcycle smashed beyond recognition, in pieces across both sides of the carriageway;  the front of the car imploded, and both airbags deployed like failed parachutes over the dashboard. The scene turned my stomach (they always do) but the young man – a boy, really – was being attended to by medics, about five metres further on. He must have been flung there, I guessed, and I saw his eyes were open and moving – he was alive, thank God. I rolled my bike along the footpath, averting my eyes out of a kind of respect for the victim, and a bunch of rubberneckers had already gathered around the crash zone, feasting on the carnage, chatting and – unbelievable – even laughing a little. Show some fucking solemnity you ghouls.

The Holy Fountain Shrine

Five minutes later a car overtook me – he had lost patience waiting for the accident to be cleared – and shaved by within twelve inches of my shoulder, at speed, on a wide and empty road. When I am King, I growled, one in every hundred airbags will be replaced at random with explosives. When I am King.

Descending a timber mile of saw mills, the aroma of freshly cut timber hauled me out of my temporary distress, and I pulled in to the Shrine of the Holy Fountain. It’s been too long, I thought, and flicked a coin through the slates of it’s weathered wooden door and yanked the rope back and forth, jangling the bell above to summon the spirits. Take care of that guy, I asked, and keep me safe on these mountain roads.

And I prayed for the fox as well. But I’m sure he was already watching me by now.

Mountain Restaurant, Deepest Chichibu

Something Serious: The Okutama Big Loop

A Pass with a View

I was waiting at the lights when she pulled up, young, slim and beautiful. We were waiting for them to change but it was still red. She shifted position on the saddle, slightly cocked her leg and – after a short pause – let out a massive fart.  And then she turned to look at me, defiance in her stare.  “Beat that” she seemed to say, baiting me.

Finger Defroster

On any other day, I’d be more than a match for a blow-off challenge, confident I would trump her trump – but not today. Today was the start of my “Long Slow Distance” training, the objective being to keep your heart rate deliberately low – in the “fat burning” zone – to build endurance and, hopefully, lose a bit of Christmas excess. As such, i wasn’t relying on the power bars and gels I usually consume in some quantity, and for once I wasn’t suffering from the unpleasant side-effects of these concentrated carbohydrate snacks. Until next time, baby.

Heavy Metal

It had been less than 48 hours since I’d stepped off the plane at Narita, and this was my first proper bike ride (my first real exercise!) in three weeks. But bollocks to the jet lag – it felt glorious to be back on my bike in the Japanese mountains ! The sun was bright, like a hundred watt bulb blinding me in this curiously clear sky, but it was cold, and the lower reaches of the valley up to Tomin No Mori was too deep for the light to penetrate. My water bottle quickly froze and I climbed with a slow thirst. But the road had been gritted and cleared, and the rare patches of ice remaining were easy to avoid. Isn’t it incredible that you can still summit 1200m passes in the middle of Winter !  But long climbs mean long descents and painful, painful frozen fingers.

Okutama-ko Dam

At the regular Soba stop, I was warned that he next climb on my list, Tsuru Toge was fully iced up. This time last year I’d ignored similar advice… and did a bit of ice-skating, putting out of action for three weeks. So I headed East back towards Tokyo instead, taking a new “long route” up through Saitama, getting lost a fair bit, and discovering a rather nice quiet route to the river, and home.

And I was lucky – the wind was behind me.

A Roadside Shrine in the Shadows

Ride Memo
: 190km with 1700m climbing. The return route from Okutama is a little complicated – Garmin GPS data is here.

The (Unofficial) Tour de France Prologue, 2012

This New Year was spent in a small town in North Eastern France, visiting Tim, an old friend from Tokyo. Belfort, bordering Germany and Switzerland proved it’s reputation as of one of the wettest places in France by raining practically non-stop for the four days I was there – apparently it had been doing this since November. Little scope for outdoor activities then, so most time was spent very pleasurably in spas and saunas, including both a visit to the German spa town of BadenWeiler as well as the Swiss spa and sauna resort of Rheinfelden. However, we did manage to fit in a leisurely New Years Day hangover-recovery ride around Belfort on a couple of creaking, old shopping bikes.

"Can't we stop for a bloody coffee now ?"

But this begs a question – should such modest activity even merit a mention in a cycling themed blog ? Surely there should be some basic criteria to pass before time spent on a bicycle constitutes a proper “bike ride”, and not just any old jaunt down to the shops. A minimum distance, for a start ? Tim’s cycle computer showed 14km (rounded up…) at the end of it, and that alone would deserve to fail. Or tough weather conditions, perhaps ? This time last year I heard it was minus 17 degrees outside… this year it was a mild plus 13, although it did rain for the most part, pelting down pretty hard at one point. But then again, we took shelter in a cafe, enjoying an exquisite cream frothed cappuccino while we waited for the worst of the showers to pass. Hmmm, no qualifier there either, I imagine.

Which left adversity: and maybe was something on which I had a chance. Only hours before I’d kissed a man for the first time… actually over a dozen of them in succession, this being the accepted greeting for the French to celebrate the start of a New Year… or so I’m told. And I’d also exposed myself multiple times to dozens of good German and Swiss citizens of all ages, in mixed sauna and naked thermal baths, which was a first for me as well (at least for those nationalities…). But strictly speaking, as I was neither riding nude nor snogging Tim while I did it, that probably couldn’t be counted either.
So why have I mentioned it at all ?  Simple:  Belfort will be a stage town on this year’s Tour de France, actually for the 30th time in it’s history, and as I have now cycled through a few of those same cobblestone streets that the peloton will roll through this summer, I do believe it qualifies as a valid “cycling blog” update  – just !

I only hope they have better weather than we did.

"I can't believe this is my first cycling post of 2012"