Matsuhime

Mar 20 05 Matsuhime Ascent 3

The road to Matsuhime

Mar 20 09 Okutama 2

Rough Ride

We hadn’t planned it, hadn’t dared even to imagine it, so it was a surprise to us both as we thought the same thought at the same time, turned our bikes away from the promise of a hilly verdant green route beyond the small post town of Saruhashi, and instead pointed them northwards towards Matsuhime Toge. It had been a very pleasant ride so far, sunshine warming our backs, early cherry blossoms illuminating the road side, Spring all around us, but now, as we turned to face 1300 vertical metres of mountain ahead, dark clouds gathered ominously in the peaks above and a chill north wind rushed down the slopes at us. Getting out here we may have convinced ourselves that winter was truly over – ha! – but this mountain doesn’t allow you to entertain such fantasies.

Mar 20 01 Route 30

Spring in the air

They’d completed construction of the new tunnel since I’d been here last, many years of pork barrel spending in this quiet car-free area to punch a sacrilegious hole through the mountainside… but we veered off left, up what was now the “old” road, over a barrier, through the now unlit tunnels and onto the start of the mountain road proper, looking down on the dam and valley below.

Mar 20 04 Matsuhime Ascent 2

Road Closed for a reason

Those lush colours of the morning were now usurped by the naked limbs of leafless trees, yellowed flora and the occasional tired dull green of a lonely pine. We ascended on the narrow switchbacks, negotiating rocks and ducking under fallen branches suspended across the road… “thou shalt not pass” they groaned, swaying in the wind. We were the only ones there, the birdsong of the lowlands had long ceased and even the crows had deserted us. The lack of foliage gave us a clear view of what lay ahead: miles of steep road snaking up and up and up to the pass above. It was increasingly magnificent looking down, seeing the narrow fracture of the road where it had started in the valley – and it was horrifying to look up and clearly see how far we still had to go. But the silence, the embrace of the peaks around us, and of course, the promise of a long downhill made it worthwhile.

Mar 20 07 Matsuhime Hailstorm

Our icy reward

But it was cold at the top of the pass, icy cold in fact, and barely had we pulled ourselves over the gate, when Matsuhime orchestrated her surprise – a hail storm, quickly escalating from a few harmless white flecks on the asphalt to a full-blown onslaught of large icy stones, stinging our exposed flesh as we ran for cover.
“Do we descend right now?” we asked aloud, maybe to each other, more possibly to the mountain, “or risk this turning in a full snow storm..?”. We were alone, a brief rustle in the undergrowth had confirmed that – the only other creature up here had the right idea and decided to get the hell out of it. So we did the same, a low, gingerly descent over hail-coated roads, turning to freezing rain as we lost elevation far too slowly. Around rocks and timber, on a seemingly endless teeth-chattering, bastard-freezing, soaking-wet cold ride to the lower slopes and the nearest soba shop.

We warmed our insides with some ramen, wrapped our numb fingers around cups of hot green tea and, bit by bit, let the grimace turn into a huge grin, a smile creeping wider and wider across our faces. Matsuhime – she knows how to hurt you alright, but by the Gods, she knows how to pleasure you as well.

Mar 20 06 Matsuhime Ascent Lee

Pained and Pleasured I

Mar 20 08 Okutama 1

Pained and Pleasured II

Ride data:

https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1093313588

 

 

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The Monster’s Pants

Nov 1 05 Arima

I may have been saved by the Monster’s Pants.

Recently my cycling prowess has been somewhat magically restored and I do believe it’s  down to these Pants. Are they perhaps the latest Rapha bib-shorts ? No. Is it maybe  a pseudonym for a special performance enhancing cocktail of steroids and amphetamines ? Hmmm… wrong. Could it be a specially crafted training regime, or the nom d’guerre of some extraordinary secret coach ? Nope, none of these – it’s a simple Japanese nursery rhyme that my 3 year old son insists I sing before his evening bath. And I just can’t get the thing out of my head.

“The Monster’s Pants are brilliant pants, they’re super strong, they’re super strong…”

Nov 7 10 Nokogiri

A loop from my home out to the reaches of Chichibu and a ferociously steep back route up to Nihongi Pass, sustained slopes of 14 to 19%, another couple of climbs and the long ride back, naturally, into a headwind… over 200 kilometres and 2300 metres of climbing under a stunning blue sky and witness to a fabulous urban sunset from the banks of the Arakawa river. I had’t done a ride like this since my last Tokyo-Itoigawa race way back in 2012. I must be getting my endurance back !

“These pants are made of tiger fur, they’re really warm, they’re really warm…”

Nov 7 25 Kazahari

Nokogiri, the craggy rock-strewn often-closed mountain road linking Okutama to Akiruno via a barely used pass just a touch below a thousand metres elevation. A steady 9% grade with potholes, landslides and even a few small streams running down the middle of the broken asphalt to negotiate. A favourite. The last three times I’ve gone all out on this, around 45 minutes on the first attempt I timed myself, and just under 41 minutes on the last attempt in summer. My goal was sub-40, my result… 37 min 48 sec ! Was I on a roll or what ?

“Wear them five years, they’ll never tear…”
“Wear them ten years, they’ll never wear…”

Nov 7 35 Kazahari

Nov 13 15 Shomaru

That would have been enough and I could have honorably peddled to the station and got a train home. But what the heck, I was in the vicinity of the beautiful albeit dreaded Kazahari Toge. Grueling at the best of times, this was always the first mountain pass on the agenda – and it would often be the last as well. The long steep unforgiving slopes are renowned among climbing aficionados and you need fresh legs to approach this beast. Stop once, and you’ll rarely be able to clip back in again to continue.

Ah, so what. After my record-breaking success on Nokogiri let’s try out these legs a bit more, eh. It was… exquisitely painful, oh yes, by the Gods that hurt. But I did it!

“You, Me, You, Me, and Everybody…”
“Let’s grab the Monster’s Pants and put them on…”
“Let’s grab the Monster’s Pants and put them on…!”

The Monster’s Pants. They rock.

Nov 21 05 Arakawa

The Perfect Road

Escape

Escape

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 ?

005 Towards Manza

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 ?

045 Towards Shibu Toge
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.

Zenkoji, Nagano

Zenkoji, Nagano

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.

My road

My road

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.

050 Shiga Kogen

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.

Shiga Plateau

Shiga Plateau

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!

100 Shiga Kogen

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.

Streets of Yudanaka

Streets of Yudanaka

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.

125 Zenkoji in Nagano

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.

175 Nagano Mountains

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.

140 Nagano City

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.

The Life

The Life

135 Nagano CityA 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.

041 Towards Shibu Toge

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.

Easy

Easy

Route Day 1:
https://connect.garmin.com/activity/934832801

Route Day 2:
https://connect.garmin.com/activity/934832723

Two steps forward, One (painful) step back

A machine

A machine and a machine

Spring is the time to be cycling in Japan – the few weeks on either side of Golden Week are glorious, the sharp morning chill of Spring turning into generous warmth in the afternoon; and the mountains are green, greener than anything you’ve seen, the trees and the flowers pulsating with their new found colour and vibrancy. And I missed it all.

Road with a view

Road with a view

The note I had made to myself on my last ride: “Today I was, quite simply, amazing.” Yes indeed, I was back on form at long last! So pleased that I thought I would give my bike a decent clean … and it was then I noticed the crack in my titanium frame. The Horror. The Absolute Horror.

It would be two months before I’d got a replacement frame delivered and built up again, with business trips, Easter, and then Golden Week thrown in my way to thwart me. I cursed every fine weekend with blue skies and perfect temperatures, and rejoiced in weekends of rain.

Reunited

Reunited

The new bike built up, and a few more weeks of getting back some fitness and getting the fit right on the new frame. It wasn’t easy. Ride one: odd noises from the bottom bracket and two and half hours back at the bike shop to track that down… fixed! Next was lower back pain (a first for me in 15 years of cycling) – three rides to track that down, alter my fit and build up my core… fixed ! It was hard, but I was back on the passes I loved: Yamabushi, Nokogiri, Ireyama, Kazahari, Imagawa, Arima (what a beauty – Arima Toge!), Sadamine… and even Yanagisawa, over 1500m of constant climbing. I even did my 100km Urban River Loop in record time, a 29.4km/h average speed through city and bike paths, back home by 8:15am in the morning – much better than me at my peak even. Wow, was I was rocking or what ?!

Rocking'

Rockin’

Out and about

Out and about

My last climb, my nemesis Kazahari Rindo, the toge what put my lower back into spasms a few weeks earlier, the long super steep climbs, exposed to the heat of the sun, and very very little respite from the gradient until it’s 1150m top… I enjoyed it. I actually enjoyed it. The long weekend rides and the midweek early morning pre-work training sessions had paid off: it felt good to be strong again!

Perfection

Perfection

Well, that’s how I felt last Sunday, at 9:20AM.

At 9:45 I was lying dazed on a mountain road.

A truck coming from the other direction had suddenly pulled sharply across my path, looking to get into a parking place on the left, the idiot driver unaware of me coming down the road. I braked but it was just too close, almost meaningless; I swerved hard to the right in an effort to avoid going right into it … now I was lying in the road, confused, and not able to get to my feet.

It seems I had crossed the centre line and collided into the side of the car waiting behind it, leaving a large dent, and then flung back out onto the road. Probably a good thing – the aluminum panels of the car took the brunt of the impact, before the road got to me.

Man down

Man down

A long ambulance ride, police, road rash, bruising, cuts, twisted ankle, banged up shoulder and an assortment of other minor injuries… but thank goodness no broken bones. I was lucky. A few days on crutches, a fair bit of pain, a lot of hassle and a week later I feel I’m on the mend. Really lucky. The truck driver will be prosecuted – dangerous driving – but it seems he has minimal insurance, enough to cover my medical bills, but nothing for the bike, or the time off work, or compensation. I might need to lawyer up for that. More hassles.

And I need to be patient, wait to get mended and … start it all over again.

But not for long...

Me, soon

Purple Haze

Rediscovered

Rediscovered

A friend of mine, living in Paris many years ago, once topped off a thundering season of romantic success with two beautiful sisters, two nights in a row, and then a legendary move on their mother the following weekend: that was his purple patch.
A couple of months ago, my titanium frame cracked beyond repair and I was forced to temporarily make my old purple aluminum Klein bike roadworthy to get at least some riding in: heavy, and a harder ride than my Enigma, but more enjoyable than I thought it would be – and at least on the flat, fast. That was MY purple patch !

Hmmm. I’m pretty sure that my friend in France does not live vicariously though my stories.

Arakawa posing

Arakawa posing

Suburban Hymns

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A raw pre-dawn sky that turns from black to velvet to fire – briefly – and then a striking blue, where it endures for the rest of the day. Frozen puddles in the gutter and patches of black ice in the tire tracks of dump trucks and in the roadside piss of taxi drivers. I made my offering to the roadside deity, wrapped up warm by some believer against the elements – there is more than one God here, and he lives under the tarmac and along the verge, above the intersection and behind the traffic lights. It doesn’t hurt to get him on your side.

DSC_0022~2

DSC_0032~2

Ahead, the frigid white-capped spines of mountains positioned like an advancing polar army, surrounding the city below. I confront the foot hills but back off from the mountains proper – no longer the confidence of old on 23mm tyres over uncertain surfaces. But close enough to feel freezing gusts of wind roll down from high, piecing my flesh like icy daggers, an exquisite reminder of why I do this, while everyone else sleeps.

Close enough ’til Spring I thought, close enough.

DSC_0020

 

The Imperial (2014)

early mornings

There hasn’t been a ride this year where I haven’t fallen short of some goal, be it distance, elevation, destination… whatever. Something has interceded to thwart my plan for almost every ride: bad weather, bad scheduling, dubious fitness and even more dubious willpower. I had finished my Noto trip much fitter than when I started, but was disgruntled that I hadn’t spent just one more night out in the wilds in my tent, rather than a warm dry hotel. So it looks like I’d failed another goal as well: toughness.

IMG_2970vI needed a plan, something to put me back into gear so to speak, some way to demonstrate I was not as washed up as I thought ! And I came up with this: The Imperial. Not exactly empire building, nothing to do with the the five star Tokyo hotel… nor the local Tandori for that matter. I had defined “The Imperial” from a simple unit of measure: whereas all my stats for climbing and distance were measured in metres and kilometers, this would be a simple goal in good old fashioned units: “imperial” miles.

As goals go, it was very modest: a hundred miles of distance with a mile of vertical climbing.

My first try was an overnight trip to Shizuoka to regain some two wheeled dignity – it resulted in two closed passes, an unsightly detour via Route 1 and several minor valleys filled with quarries and heavy industry. Plus a cracked seatpost and a broken cassette. I limped down the Doshi michi, hoping nothing else would fail before Fujino station and my train ride home.

IMG_2847

Barely two years ago I was knocking out century rides every other weekend, whereas this year I hadn’t managed a single one.  It was beginning to feel like this would be my annus horribilis for road biking.

IMG_2951

But when I thought about it, I realised that I did manage some great rides, re-visiting some of my favourite “toge”: Tomin No Mori, the Imagawa south approach (always much harder than I remember), the classic Shiraishi followed by Sadomine descent. I had ridden through eerie silent dawn mists on the Arakawa, and past crystal clear views of Fuji-san on deserted mountain roads.

15932913246_cf6147b14a_kAll wonderful rides, and I also rediscovered my temple route, an old favourite of mine taking in Yamabushi, Shomaru, and the ancient Nenogongenji shrine –  I got to appreciate the joy in riding for riding’s sake alone, trying not to worry about The Imperial.

And then, one cold early winter’s day, after completing the temple loop, there seemed a little more left in my legs than usual. Why not ride home, I thought, instead of taking the train. From the mountains to the foothills, through lightly trafficked suburbs and then the river paths of Iruma-gawa and and Arakawa.  As I got closer to home the numbers on my Garmin looked vaguely familiar, like they were trying to remind me of something. I got to my front door and took one more glance before switching the thing off:  one mile of climbing and one hundred miles of riding…

When everything's right with the world

When everything’s right with the world…

Ride details:
http://connect.garmin.com/activity/646085785