It was cold arriving on Shinkansen platform of Nagano station at 7:40AM – despite the tights, two thermal tops, jerseys, hat and various other accessories I’d packed in my heavier-than-hoped-for saddle bag (you’ve got to curse all that room) I was back to my sweaty wheezy self on the first climb out of the city – in just shorts and a short sleeved jersey.
My plan for the first day was to first repeat a route up to Lake Nojiriko which I’d done three years ago, and then head south-west for the first time towards Hakuba and Lake Aoki. I remembered to turn off on the old road before the series of tunnels, taking me up through the hills and clutches of two or three farmhouses in many small hamlets. No cars, just the sound of birdsong and the self-satisfied labour of my breathing… happy, actually ecstatic that I was out here and nowhere near the bloody office. The last few thoughts of work swirled away like dirty water down a plug hole, the bike and the steady climbing like a hot bath for the soul.
A lot of map-checking to navigate these back-roads but I found the road eventually – I really love this lake! The narrow winding forest roads that circle it, the quiet abandoned Catholic school on the shore (nature slowing reclaiming the old wooden buildings), the ripple on the deep blue surface twinkling the reflection of the sun through the trees… I concentrated on the rhythm of riding, leaning in and out of the many curves, stealing the occasional glance to my left to catch a view of the lake, correcting myself rather suddenly more than once to avoid ending up in it. Traffic was almost non-existent, apart from a short convoy of classic cars, adding more to the feeling that I’d been transported to another, less complicated, time.
Instead of taking the road north east – a steep climb out of this caldera – I carried on round the north of the lake, to complete a full circle before heading to the mountains. There were wakeboard and kayak shops, a few small hotels and B&Bs, and restaurants – the very minimum of activity, especially considering this amazing early Autumn weather. I can’t understand the lack of visitors – better buy my holiday home now before word gets out.
I had faffed around here for far too long, including a leisurely lunch, and it was one o’clock before I got back on the road. I was behind schedule, but I didn’t yet appreciate just how far behind I was. A brief image flashed across my mind from out of nowhere – the grizzly tearing up Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant. I pushed it away. Plenty of time before dark in these mountains, plenty.
Route 31 was wide but the tall trees lining the road offered the perfect canopy of shade. Surprizingly little traffic and relatively gentle gradients until I approached the top when the road tweaked up a little more cruelly, and an increase in cars and coaches started crawling up the road. There was a huge camping complex and further up the pass a string of gift shops and restaurants – up here at over 1100 metres ! It was an ideal centre for hiking – the views to the north west offered majestic views of the Kita Alps – and further along was apparently the main attraction, Togakushi Shrine, deep in the forest, with a string of pilgrims milling around. It felt like a holiday weekend, and I perhaps again lingered longer than I should have done and oh my goodness it was already 3 o’clock. Only a couple hours before dusk and now I was heading towards bear country.
There were man-eaters in the news two months ago, bears getting a taste for human flesh, a semi-devoured hiker found in the belly of one of them. Hmmm. These roads are quiet, surely too quiet for cars to scare away the wildlife. No escape routes or nearby train stations either, just the stark black-on-yellow signs, “Beware of the Bears”. And – running low on food. Oh. Oh Sweet Jezus! I scrambled in my saddle-bag to get the new bear-bell out. Shit, not very loud is it. My sobbing was much louder.
I had completely miscalculated the elevation today, and saw there was still a load of climbing left to do. Despondent, I turned around and descended a short way into yet another climb, realised there really was nowhere else to go and turned back up the slope, cursing the wasted effort on retracing my steps. Oh what amazing views! What fantastic scenes of the Alps under this blue sky! Only wish I could enjoy it. No time for any photo stops now. The sun had disappeared behind the mountains now and it was starting to get dark. I was spat out on the main road, Rt 31, somewhat relieved with a 10km straight gentle climb ahead of me, but more traffic that I was expecting.
Then just as I was starting to complain about the cars and trucks the main road veered acutely off north, and in the fading light I saw my road to the lake – a mossy broken-asphalted goat-track dipping briefly before soaring up into stillness of the gloomy woods above. It was all so quiet, even the birds had deserted me… please traffic, come back!
12%, 14%, 16%… it was never-ending, each rise I saw ahead giving me false hope that it was over. I could only think about bears, big black vicious ones like I’d just seen on the warning sign down at the entrance to this road. I was starving, legs running on empty, but it was getting dark, and I was imagining lots of ominous noises in the undergrowth. The last thing I wanted to do was to stop and take out something to eat.
The road topped out near a closed ski lift, and I saw the indigo bowl of the lake below. 2700 metres of climbing for the day with a heavy bike-pack. I was saved!
That night I dreamt of a dystopian future where road-cyclists were routinely rounded up by police, beaten, and then thrown in prison pending execution by firing squad. We shared the same cells with dissident readers of Home & Garden, which was far more disturbing.
It was a chilly morning but very pleasant riding the narrow roads skirting the lakes. My original plan for 3000m climbing was on reflection perhaps a bit ambitious, and tomorrow was a work day after all. I shelved it for an alternative backroad jaunt across a number of small valleys across to the Chikuma river, giving me some short steep climbs, sketchy descents and a final long fast winding drop to the Chikuma Valley. The bear bell went on early today but none of the roads felt as ominous as the one last night. It was a half day, just under 1000m of climbing, and I felt fresh when I got on the train. And perhaps, even, a little lucky…