Why the hell was doing this to myself. This – the cycling thing. A year of disappointment (silver week trip cancelled due to illness), frustration (an age waiting for a new frame while my fitness whittled away) and even some danger, when I was hit by a car (off the bike for a month and yet more frustration). Was I enjoying it anymore ?
The days I did ride were unseasonably rainy, or the rides unavoidably short. The heyday of 270k rides with 3.5k of climbing were a distant memory, whilst the aching, tired body after every decent ride was an ever present reality. I still recognized the instants of pleasure, snatched moments in the mountains where you hear only your breathing, the green comforting embrace of dark forest roads, even the honest pain of a hill-climb done well… but I no longer reveled in it. What had happened to that passion I once had ?
I had to do something. It was time to take the bull by the horns, or the bike by the handlebars if you like, get away for a couple days proper riding, like I used to do, and understand if the coals were still simmering deep below the weight of this melancholy, just needing a little oxygen to ignite once more, or if I should just give the whole bloody thing up and start playing golf.
In what seemed like an age (it was), both the weather and my constitution cooperated and I alighted at Nagano station, with a plan to circle back to Nagano via Shibu Toge, and head cross-county towards Matsumoto and Ueda, and possibly Utsugushigahara and Lake Suwako. In my state of mind I had imagined freezing winds and frost, but it was warm – perfect actually – and I congratulated myself on a rare good decision, to leave my warm autumn jacket at home.
A little unpleasant traffic out of the city but I was soon on the long, the very long, climb up to Manza Onsen. 24km said the sign but I knew from a distant hazy memory that the first 20km was uphill. I didn’t recall the exact elevation but a sign ahead informed me I had 99 hairpin turns to go (and I would continue to be reminded, on every damned bend). Turns out I had 1500m of straight climbing, in addition to the 300m I’d already climbed since leaving the station: almost two vertical kilometers without a horizontal break.
The cool shady boughs of trees over the rising winding road I recalled from the same hazy memory was somewhat correct but only for about half of it – the other half was right in the sun, on steep exposed slopes and surprisingly hot. My enjoyment of the amazing scenery and the golden orange and reds of autumn was somewhat tempered by the brutal climb ahead and the fear – correct as it turned out – that there would not be a single place to refill my water bottle over the next 24 kilometers. I rationed myself to a couple of gulps with each 100m climbed.
Manza Onsen was two closed hotels and it took me a while to find the only one that was open, a sprawling complex with the voices of a few unseen staff, and I found a dining room only through wandering down empty dark corridors of guest rooms and up a semi-hidden staircase.
The last 500 metres of climbing was hard, and difficult to get into any kind of rhythm because of the many photo-stops I found hard to resist, including the obligatory selfie at the 2172m Shibu Pass… my fourth or fifth time doing this. It was chilly, and I layered up for a descent, with a luxurious break in the restaurant of a ski-lodge restaurant where I had freshly baked bread and hot cocoa in front of a roaring fireplace… oh I really didn’t want to leave this!
The descent was… otherworldly; there were a few minor climbs and I dropped suddenly through thick swirling cloud, and then darkly shadowed roads bordered with avenues of trees in various states of colour… it seemed to take forever to drop below 2000 metres. Both my ears popped at the same time and all of a sudden the sound of the wind rushing past was hugely amplified… I was quite lost in the whole experience, and when I realised I was not going to make Nagano before dusk I gladly took the option of stopping at Yudanaka onsen on the lower slopes of the mountain, finding an old cosy ryokan, Kameya (“the house of turtles”) run by a harried and friendly old lady, where images of turtles were carved into the woodwork and adorned the softly lit lanterns – and a couple of ceramic siblings watched me as I relaxed in the wooden bath in the garden. It was a welcome retreat from the modernity and conformity of all too many hotels nowadays.
After my bath, and quite possibly the biggest meal I have ever had, I took to the narrow streets dressed in “yukata”, my “geta” clacking loudly on the paving stones and echoing with those of other couples and small groups similarly out for a nighttime stroll: the dark entrance to steep uneven moss-covered steps up to a forest shrine… shadows that flickered fleetingly behind a Shoji covered window as someone moved across a room… men old enough to know better with young lithe companions on their arms, as they visited a few of the small baths open for private bathing. Magic that I’d almost forgotton existed.
I didn’t sleep well that night – I never do in an unfamiliar place. The next morning was chilly, I was tired and my legs heavy, and I just couldn’t get my heart rate up. It was slow-going getting through Nagano and out to the countryside on the other side, and I stopped to check my map many many times. The road I had planned to take was busy with cars and trucks – I really should have known this by looking at the map – the lines of the road were far too smooth to discourage much traffic. I looked across at the valley walls on my left, and spotted a road veering up and above this trunk road. That could be a plan.
Looking at the map, route 401 looked like it had been scribbled by my three-year old son on our dining room table, sharp random angles up and down and side to side… I knew this would be tough. And I also knew it would be amazing. I stopped by the side of the road to eat, and and a car slowed while the driver threw me a huge apple: yes, this was going to be another good day.
The road ahead was alternately shaded and sunny, up and down, and it pulled me irresistibly over each summit and around every corner, skirting glistening forest streams, fields of harvested rice, enveloped by birdsong… and all under a clear deep blue sky. And on a Monday ! Jeez. I could’t wipe the smile off my face even if I tried. This was the perfect road, I said to myself, again and again, the perfect road.
A heavy lunch of rice and lamb and the long climb up to route 12. This maneuvered itself across the top of a long mountain range and across shallow valleys, never dropping below 650m and rarely going about 850m. Never the less, the climbs had me out of my saddle and the descents had me digging my heels deep into the corners. I rode past small hamlets, golden fields of bales of hay, isolated farmhouses, through woods alive with the colours of autumn and all the time – all the time – rivetting views of the snow-capped Northern Alps to the west. This was a living, vibrant road, deep in the mountains, not an old abandoned track, or a sterile unpopulated skyline highway built just for high-speed views.
It was the perfect road.
In the end I had to get back to Tokyo that evening, but as I raced towards Ueda station in encroaching darkness I felt strangely content, and knew that a huge weight had lifted from my shoulders. The magic was still here.
Route Day 1:
Route Day 2: