Category Archives: Day Rides

Rekindled

The Green Line

Happy, despite appearances

I looked back on the weekend like a man who has just learnt to love again. The early morning ride out of the awakening city, cool shadows draped across my chosen route of quiet urban back-roads, the orchestra of birdsong building into a quiet crescendo the further I rode. This was no infatuation – been there, done that – nor some frantic physical pleasure obscured by misplaced feelings of affection. She was an old flame genuinely rekindled, and I knew this was the real thing.

Okutama views

Okutama views

It didn’t happen overnight. We’d started courting again a month or so ago, wooing each other slowly, adding numerous outings since. Fun, oh yes, but nothing serious I thought – and if truth be told it felt a little awkward, hard work even. I’d lost some flexibility since our last liaison, and positions that felt so natural six months ago felt forced and uncomfortable now. And to be fair, she’d also put on a little weight herself. That was the set of winter tyres I’d put on her of course.

 

A jet-lagged post-tendonitis ride along the Arakawa, perhaps not the most promising of beginnings; the next weekend we hit the mountains, where it had all began many years ago; Imagawa-toge from the north, and the wonderful descent from Tsuru-toge… I had the first inkling something good was going to come out of this. The climb up Tomin-no-Mori and – oh my goodness ! – our favourite hidden Nokogiriyama, so soon…it was happening all so quickly; there could be no change of heart now. But it was last weekend when everything all clicked profoundly back into place, a ride that volunteered everything, a turning point.

Nokogiriyama South

Nokogiriyama South

I’d overslept, which probably helped, allowing me a rare six plus hours sleep. And I woke up to a glorious day, deep blue skies and a luminous green, starting from the weeds outside my front door right up into to the mountainsides of Okumusashi and the hidden farmsteads perched high in the thickly wooded hills. It didn’t feel like the 27 degrees shown on the thermometer.

Heading out ...

Heading out …

On the way to Yamabushi Toge I met an old friend at the Holy Shrine where I stopped for water, and we headed up there together, taking the serpentine curves at a conversational pace.
“Still got the bug ?” he asked knowingly, and I thought back to the eight months I’d spent cycling from the UK to Japan. Oh God Yes I still had it, but the responsibilities and joys of an almost- two-year old boy at home meant that nowadays I could risk nothing more than these occasional illicit weekend affairs.

Jose continued on to Chichibu after the pass, while I turned off for the gentle climb to Shomaru Toge, stopping in the soba shop at the top to buy some drinks.
“Italia ? Italia ?” shouted a bald Japanese guy sat at the window table. He was waving at me and I told him I was British. He said he was Pantani and continued chattering on in fluent Italian, until I could extract myself and make my farewells.
“Ciao” I said
“Auf Weidersein” he said back.

Nokogiriyama North

Nokogiriyama North

Heavy boughs cradled the road in a leafy grip and we bumped over the potholed descent at a descent speed, halting occasionally to absorb the view. As soon as it was done the momentum carried us up the first five metres of the next climb to Kayabazaka on the Green Line. It would have been nice if we’d been carried me a few miles more, because this was my steepest prolonged climb for a while, and after the initial soothing image of farmhouses, flourishing gardens of springtime flowers and the deep green tea-fields in the shade of the steep valley slopes, it was a tough grind, albeit through shaded forest. The bike creaked and I groaned.
I caught sight of one road perched incredibly high up on the other side of the valley. Wow, I thought, don’t recall seeing that on my map: that was one road I certainly wouldn’t like to climb today. A beginner’s mistake of course – it was indeed the same road, another two miles further on…

Kayabazaka marked one of several forest junctions that terminated a sharp climb from the valley floor to the “Green Line” a narrow up-down road following the ridge of the mountain range from Chichibu to Hanno. Wonderfully shaded, with few vehicles, and a couple of rickety restaurants to stop for lunch over breathtaking views, it had been one of my favorite roads for a long time.

One more climb after the Green Line, and I let a red-faced hard-breathing cyclist who had been tailing me overtake. I wanted to relish the moment, the steady upwards gradient, an colonnade of trees, unending switchbacks and the music of the river below. I danced lightly on the pedals, and she rocked gently from side to side beneath me, her rear cassette purring with pleasure, forgiving my unpracticed moves and my still clumsy handling. My heart rate far higher than it should have been I’m sure, and we glided down the last descent, a huge smile of contentment fixed across my face.

Yes indeed. I was in love again.

I'll be back

I’ll be back

Route:
http://connect.garmin.com/activity/510663220

Moments Part II

One day left before the new year and I am trying desperately to make the last entry for 2013. Today there is snow on the higher passes whilst the usually demure riverside paths are now dangerously iced up in places. But the photos below are of me still in shorts (admittedly, of the goosebumpity kind) as I squeezed what colour and warmth I could get from the Autumn,  now two to three months ago. Ah, but it’s nice to remember.

This one is notable as being my last century ride, 162km and 2000m odd of climbing. Climbed an ancient back route over Yaku Toge  towards Gunma, passing gorgeous old farmsteads and whitewashed samurai warehouses all the way up. But the descent to the gorge was nasty, and I got attacked by a mutant wasp, size of a sparrow, big enough and heavy enough that I could genuinely head-butt it with my helmet into state of unconsciousness, and whilst it woke up and flailed around on the ground, make my escape.

Valleys of Chichibu

Valleys of Chichibu

Hiding behind a thick semi-circle of evergreens, there is a small temple I occasionally stop at on the way to Ome. He’s getting used to me now, this sacred guardian, and his roar has softened somewhat, with nothing of the fury and malice he first greeted me with several years ago.

Guardian

Guardian

Took a Shinkansen out to Karuizawa and made my way back to Chichibu over a few passes I’d be dreaming about for some time. Stunning bright sunshine soon turned into a cloudy Autumn day which superficially dulled the colours somewhat but added an edge to the whole atmosphere of the ride.

Hidden ponds in Gunma

Hidden lakes in Gunma

A quiet shrine by the roadside – the block of wood is tied to a length of thick rope and a bell which you rattle to summon the local deity. The characters on the wood say “kotsu anzen” – a wish for safety on the roads, the speciality of this particular spirit. I donated generously, and shook vigorously.

"Road Safety"

“Road Safety”

Fujita Toge, a hard one to find, and the eerie narrow trail deep through forest turned upwards, sustaining 19 degree slopes and 26 degrees in places. The echoes of my screams broke a little of the loneliness.

Wild Wood

Wild Wood

The back route from Gunma into Chichibu over the Shiozawa pass was such a find, marked as a prefectural road, but reduced to the width of a path in many places – deserted, but a perfect steepness that let me stretch my legs, but not break them. Hairpins like this were some of the highlights.

Hairpin Hairpin Hairpin...

Hairpin Hairpin Hairpin…

The colour of the foliage was subdued in the cloudy conditions but sometimes grey skies add meaning to a tough ride, whilst perfect conditions make it too enjoyable, too transient.

Quiet Mountain Pass

Shiozawa Pass from Gunma into Chichibu

Nenogongen Loop (one of my favorite early AM mountain rides):

http://connect.garmin.com/activity/398485272 

Karuizawa to Gunma:

http://connect.garmin.com/activity/399687573

Happy Endings

Southern Alps

Yatsugatake and the tap tap tap of rain. I had longingly looked outside every morning waiting for this chance, the chance to try roads I have never ridden, a luxury less common nowadays.

Tap tap tap. Maybe tomorrow.

A little adventure; a token sense of discovery, a chance to map a new route. No recommendations, no hearsay, no guidance, just an old fashioned paper map and a careful eye for contour lines, rivers and the shape of the roads.

Tap tap tap. Maybe tomorrow. Or the day after.

A little sense of mystery where it may lead, not knowing if that barely visible line is a road that can be ridden. And the possibility – successfully accomplished – of getting lost.

Tap Tap Tap… Tap … hang on … Jezus! Run !  Run get my bike… clear sky !

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IMG_8548Spectacular views of the southern alps in the dawn light as I descended a long long way into the valley and a huge unanticipated climb to Shinshu Toge, an old road from Yamanashi to Nagano prefectures, deserted of people and cars. And perfect for a minor tradition in such infrequent circumstances, I take the freedom to relieve myself in public, not huddled in the undergrowth, but proud and relaxed, in the the very middle of the road. The road drops down into thousands of acres of farmland, and trucks and tractors thunder along dusty roads – all this at 1400m above sea level.

And then a final long straight climb past the toy town of Kiyosato, never ending up to the Yatsugatake Kougen Line – a family of dear cross in front of me, a nonchalant glance thrown in my direction. Lunch with the family in a restaurant buried deep in the forest, and a 10km hilly warm down to the lodge.

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Route:
http://connect.garmin.com/activity/371370725

Into the Sun

Only 92,960,000 miles to go

Only 92,960,000 miles to go

The sun is slightly hazy behind clouds, pumped up inside the vivid curves of their hard grey boundaries, combustive oranges, reds and golds, bursting to get out; and the sharp edges of the mountains rise in silhouette below them, still many miles away.

For probably the first time, I’m on the Arakawa river heading west at dusk. I’ve taken advantage of a 3pm flex-time release from servitude, hidden deep in the annals of the company working guidelines: the unofficial rule is, of course, don’t even think about it. “If you need me” I say, “email me or call my mobile”. I’d leave the iPhone in the kitchen and knew my private number isn’t listed in any work directory. A few heads turn round in surprise. Is he really leaving at 3pm ?

Oh but it’s worth it. By 4:15pm I was on the bike: a completely different feeling, a liberating feeling, and I forget this is a work day. Blue skies, the universal peacefulness of the last couple of hours before sunset, bike paths losing a battle against aggressive foliage, and dragon flies whizzing left & right & up & down in front of me. The occasional one in to me. And one, spectacularly perishing on my sunglasses. I keep my mouth closed, but that doesn’t some some buzzing insect find it’s way inside my ear until I put it out.

And then the clouds break and everything in front of me is bathed in a spectacular deep blood red. The world pauses. And for a split-second, or maybe a hundred years, it’s only me.

It darkens quickly, and I still have two hours left of my route; up to the deserted Tamako lakes, through a unlit forest and then trafficked roads back home. The night and the unfamiliar route exhaust me quickly and I arrive home four and a half hours after I left, aching all over, dehydrated and somewhat nauseous. But a 100km on a school night…

Can’t help smiling at that !

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Ultra AM

IMG_8267

 

IMG_8274In Japan, babies are good for summer riding.

When temperatures are already in the early thirties by 8am and humidity is 90% plus, you need something that can wake you up – decisively – at 1:30 am, provide half-an-hour or so of warm up – rocking, pacing, jumping – and then, after passing the baby baton to the missus, let you out the door so you can hit the road at the relatively cool and not entirely normal hour of 3am.

 

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Luckily the roads are lit well – this is Tokyo after all – for the entire 45 kilometres to the start of the mountains, and there is always a 24 hour convini marking the end of urbanization and the start of wilderness, providing replenishment while you watch the last of the evening’s blue mist dissipate, revealing a snapshot of a star-lit sky before it turns from black to velvet to deep blue. It does take a couple of coffees to clear your head after three hours of sleep, and when the headache retreats, and the nausea subsides, senses are heightened: a wild boar foraging in the roadside undergrowth, the troop of monkeys playing up in the trees.

20130811_081555You ride along deserted county roads, no cars, no people out just yet. The deep valley hillsides keep you protected from the sun for at least a couple of hours after sun-rise. The approach to Yamabushi Toge, the fields of rice a luminous green, the tips of the ridge line far above on fire with the early rays of the sun. Absolute silence, and then a commotion of noises – birds, insects, the rapids of the river you are following. And silence again. The sun sears you briefly, cresting the top of the exposed Shomaru Toge, but then you are back under the trees, descending, and reaching Route 299 it is still early enough to be in the shade; and the steep climb to Nenogengonji Shrine is mercifully bracketed by tunnels of trees all the way.

20130811_084916A transient aroma might transport you miles and years away from this place – yesterday, as the mist cleared in the foothills of Tomin no Mori, I was transported – momentarily – thirty five years back in time on a school trip to the English seaside town of Rye, surveying a miniature model of the town in an old musty museum. And then I was back again, on an uphill stretch through boughs of trees and the trickle of small waterfalls on my left.

IMG_8270That’s what these pre-dawn rides are about – in between the staggering bouts of sheer tiredness, the digestive turmoils to the body, and the eventual victory of the sun and it’s scorching rays, there are moments of early morning pleasure to savour. Something new and wonderful to pull out of these well travelled routes.

Or maybe it’s just the sleep deprivation.

 

Garmin tracks:
http://connect.garmin.com/activity/356816281
http://connect.garmin.com/activity/360123093

20130811_074025

Arse

20130713_080150

Every cyclist should have a battle-cry, a word, or sound, or set of syllables for when they dig deep into the pain locker, for when they push themselves hard for one intense moment, when they think they can suffer no more . “Yohhh-Sh!” is a favorite of the Japanese, and of course “YeaaaSS!”, “Come OOOON!” or “F****K!” being more conventional English ones. It’s not something chosen consciously; it just comes out under moments of high physical stress.

Today, in my longest ride for months, 160km of hot & humid steep climbs and descents on broken mountain roads, I discovered mine. And I was a little disappointed to find that it was “Arse”. And I said it – for reasons I can’t really fathom – in a thick Irish brogue.

Arse!! I’d only done 20km, not even halfway to the mountains when the lack of sleep, 90% humidity and ferro-concrete heat of the metropolis almost stopped me dead in my tracks, the temptation to turn round, head home to an air-conditioned house and be back in bed by 7am was barely overcome. But I’m glad I did, because it turned into a classic ride, something I needed. The skies had become mercifully overcast, and the feeling of cycling though hot soup somewhat alleviated by the time I had passed Oume and made it to Lake Okutama-ko. It was hot, yes, but not of the red-glowing sun type, paraded by this morning’s weather forecast, there to scare viewers of immediate sun-stroke.

20130713_100619-1-1My first pass of the day was Imagawa Toge, approached from the North, probably only my second time from this direction. At just under 1000m high it was quite pleasant, steep – yes, but most of the elevation had been swallowed up by the 85km getting out here. Deserted, no traffic, and only one other cyclist whom I tailed and overtook with little trouble just as a large monkey jumped out from the trees of the opposite lane and started to make his way towards the centre line. He looked an aggressive brute, so I accelerated again, digging deep, leaving the other guy to deal with him.

A wonderful winding descent through a smooth tree-lined road and then the next pass, Tsuru Toge. A little harder, and the last couple of kilometres completely exposed. A hot one. It took forever for the last curve in the road to appear and I was wavering across the full width of the road by that time – but it did, just as I reached the point of collapse.  Arse !!

As I leaned against a tree, getting my breath back I heard the tannoy of an election vehicle chime up from below the pass, breaking the absolute silence: “Vote Tanaka, Vote Tanaka ! Thank you for your vote. Vote Tanaka !”. It slowly climbed the other side of the pass and came past the hairpin; there were half a dozen middle aged ladies waving at trees – there wasn’t another person within miles of this place. “Vote Tanaka, Vote Tanaka ! Thank you for your vote. “. Maybe they were canvassing the wildlife ?
“Otsukaresama deshita!” they said over the loudspeaker as they passed and saw me draped over the tree, waving furiously at me. “Well done ! Well done !” they said, “Don’t give up!”. The van slowly disappeared around the corner I had come around and the noise filtered away through the trees. I was once again alone in the wilderness, worried that I’d experienced my first heat-stroke related hallucination.

Another fine descent, reaching up to 70kmh on these narrow roads and even a stop for lunch before taking the Unabomber turn-off. Broken tarmac, small landslides, aggressive foliage – how I loved this route. The old lady was out, as always, tending to the amphitheatre of fields below the road, firewood bundled on her back as she leant against the 60 degree slope taking a break. I stopped as well, to take in the spectacular view of the surrounding peaks, and we briefly exchanged greetings, before going back to our own thoughts. She has been here unfailingly for the ten years I have been cycling this route, always alone, in all weathers, at all times of the day. There was an old dilapidated wooden farmhouse high up the slopes – I doubt it has electricity, and this is where she lived. How I would love to know her story.

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Old lady working the field if you look very very carefully

And from the familiar to the unknown – it was a sweltering up and down ride to get me to the start of the Takao Onsen mountain road, and the first mile or two offered up some stately views of the gorge. It was the hottest part of the day – the temperature had climbed to thirty degrees – and it was steep… very steep. The rough concrete road had furrows cemented in them to help cars grip, and my Garmin showed crazy numbers – 45% slope at one point. Ah, but that may have been due to the approaching electrical storm, throwing the GPS calibration off. And now there was a heavy steel gate across the road. “Road closed ahead” said the first sign; I climbed round it. “Beware of wasps and snakes” said the second.

Rockfalls, moss, potholes… bad, but not impassable. These new tires I’d put on soaked it all up. But I wasn’t too sure if I should make lots of noise to scare away snakes – did noise attract wasps ? And although some of the dead branches littering the road looked a little snake-like I wasn’t truly scared until it started raining. That encouraged me to speed up and get to the top; actually encouraged me to start whimpering a little thinking that I was one of the closest conductors to any lightening strikes, and then I really went for it.  Arse !!

The descent was nasty, and slightly surreal – the remains of a wide tarmac road, yellow lines still visible in the middle, broken in half on a tight corner; and a stream, treacherous with moss, flowing across and down the road. Something out of a post apocalypse movie. I dismounted, quite paranoid by now, and stepped through the shallows. And then JEZUS!! WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT?? Something slimy had touched my ankle and when I landed back in my skin, there was a small frog down there looking up at me. Smiling.

No freaking way am I doing this stupid road again: it took quite some time on this shit surface to lose the altitude I’d gained, and then I had to climb again to get over the annoying Odarumi Pass, which I’d forgotten about before rolling down to Takao for a train home. The heat was quite fierce by now and a mile from the station I stopped at a convenience store for an ice cream – civilization ! All I wanted to do was get on a train home… but now, after all this, I had a puncture.

Oh… Arse.

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Garmin Track:
http://connect.garmin.com/activity/341696414

 

The Rise and Fall

IMG_7263

Thought I was on the map, kind of a big deal, almost
Hold my own in a high speed pace line, mile high climbs in a new best time
And we all knew long distance was my special thing
Tokyo to London on a bloody bicycle – the undisputed distance king
Happy days !

My lunchtime mango lassi abandoned, got to watch my weight
No evening beer either, and half my chips left on the plate
A 55k commute twice weekly, up stupidly early for that
Intervals on the Arakawa, burn that freaking fat
Discipline !

Now I carry a spare tyre as well as my puncture kit
But that one ain’t much good to me if the tyre happens to split
My weight is up my speed is down, decline is all but certain
no time to train no time to ride, just severe sleep deprivation
A family man.

Take off the heart rate monitor, cancel dues to that pro cycling magazine,
Don’t worry about the performance data,
hell I was too old in any case
To be the next big thing.

Afterword

But hey I still like riding, it’s just racing that’s old news
So fcuk the Garmin, sit up relax… and just enjoy the views!

Ride from 18th May, Chichibu Western Loop

Hidden Houses, Old Houses

Hidden Houses, Old Houses

The Loop

The Loop

Nichitsu, abandoned mining  village

Nichitsu, abandoned mining village

Nichitsu, old bath house

Nichitsu, old bath house

Descending Hacho Toge

Descending Hacho Toge

Touching Gunma

Touching Gunma

Ride details here:
http://connect.garmin.com/activity/314246054

3D Google Earth Video:
http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/render_route_video?route_key=8544636438&site=mapmyrun.com