Along with my Positivo Espresso compatriots, I entered the Tokyo-Itoigawa Classic Endurance Race this weekend. I have been told on numerous occasions that this is not a race, but a “fast ride” as it is somewhat unofficial, but the finishers t-shirt says ‘race’, so race it is.
This event originally started as a training exercise for hazing new Meiji University Cycling Club members. As members graduated and started going out into the real world as “shakaijin old boys,” the organizers at some point began to accept cyclists with no affiliation to the university. Today, this tradition is kept alive thanks to the voluntary efforts of the OB Committee. Starting in Takao, the course mostly follows Route 20 across the country via 4 checkpoints every 50km or so to Itoigawa on the Sea of Japan coast. I’ve seen the quoted distance as anywhere between 291km and 296km.
Left work at 1pm to give myself time to prep the bike and put together a small rucksack of gear.
Met Dave at Ebisu station at 4pm, from where we took our usual Komazawa Dori route to the Tama river and so then on to Hachioji. The R&B hotel was our destination and we arrived around 6pm. Checked in and showered, we headed out to sample the delights of downtown Hachioji in a concerted attempt to ‘carbo load’.
We first sampled an excellent pint of carbs in a small bar found not too far from the station.
We then followed up with a couple of nice bottles of carbs across the street, where they were kind enough to serve us some pizza and a couple of pasta dishes too.
Returned to the hotel around 9pm and was safely tucked up in bed at 9:30pm, having set the alarm for 2:40am. OMG.
I opened my eyes to a dark, unknown room with a bizarre noise going off in the background somewhere. It took my almost 2 minutes to work out that my iPhone alarm was the source of said noise. I definitely wasn’t waking up that morning without help! No pre-ride nerves then, but 2:40am. Crikey.
Dominic, Chris, CJ, Kevin and myself met outside the hotel and were soon on our way to the start, which was short journey of 8km up Route 20 to Takao. Registered and met with James, Yair, Jerome and Steve – a late replacement for our hapless peloton captain David who had a minor bike accident a week or so ago that lead to a major problem of a broken arm and ribs. For Steve, having cycled from London to Tokyo, this event was not going to be a problem. Or so we thought.
4:00am and we were off.
James was literally out of sight before I hit the main road. Going for it. Good luck mate. Exuberance and adrenalin took over for most, and a strong pace maintained to the top of Otarumi warmed everyone up. Jerome had tore up the hill and was off ahead on his own. As the sun came up and dawn arrived, the rest of us descended along the usual route following the lakes and Route 20. The day was spent always in sight of other riders and we picked off a fair few of the earlier starters on our way.
Checkpoint 1. Timecard stamped, Dominic found a helpful mechanic to adjust his front derailleur which was causing a few problems. With this minor ‘delay’, the queue for the toilet and a general relaxed air towards the day, we took our time before heading out again. I knew I needed to eat some of the offered refreshments, but as was going to be the case all day, knowing I needed to fuel and persuading myself were two different things. I picked up a couple of rice balls and a banana. Then an energy gel.
CJ and Kevin, whilst looking strong and fit, let us go ahead. I guess their midnight arrival at the R&B was starting to make itself felt.
Getting into somewhat of a rhythm we descended into the Fruit Line and skirted Kofu on some fast dual carriageways. We attached ourselves to the back of a group of five Japanese riders, including a tiny, yet very strong lady, who were setting a strong pace, but were also insisting on not using the flyovers and stopping at every red light traffic. This meant a number of interval like sprints as the lights changed before settling into a good 30km/h+ pace line. Good fun indeed. As we got through the urban area, we came to the front and Steve pulled us like the proverbial train. The Japanese group must have thought it was Christmas. This time we were in the 35km/h zone. It was their turn to get on the back of the paceline and we followed the river to next scheduled stop.
Checkpoint 2. Our Japanese contingent were profuse in their ‘arigatos’ as we pulled into the next stop, stamped cards, and perused the selection of food and drink. I was suffering from stomach cramps, no doubt NOT helped by that blasted energy gel so early in the day on a relatively empty stomach. Stupid, stupid, stupid. From this point on I had very little appetite and yet knew I had to fuel. It proved to be quite tough, and something I would pay for later. Jerome, having maintained a cracking pace, was at this checkpoint, having decided to rejoin our group. He told us that James had flatted and taken over 20 minutes to get back on the road, putting paid to his aspirations for the day.
We continued on. Fast and straightforward, we took some time to settle into each others pace as we had Jerome disappearing off the front and then pausing as we caught up at a more conservative speed.
Steve pulled off struggling with a desperate need to find a conbini toilet. Something he ate? Little did we know that this was just the beginning for the poor sod. The rest of us, at his behest, carried on. We bore left around Lake Suwa – this was something that Tom would have loved to have done, but as we found out later, it was here that he and his domestiques took a wrong turn for a 15km diversion. Gone were his chances of a top place finish. Hard luck Tom.
As we hooked around Okaya we were passed by a Japanese fellow who told us he was a 6:00am starter. Fast! I think we saw the famous Andy of many previous wins at this point, too. Big grin on his face and obviously loving every minute. We climbed up to an elevation of just under 1000m, before heading down to the next checkpoint located not too far below the summit.
Checkpoint 3. Another timestamp, luckily Dominic remembering to get his card done just as we were leaving, and the same sad set of foods. Steve had caught us back up at this point, but shot straight off to use the facilities. I decided to follow his lead and was able to ease some of my own discomfort. Fueling and hydration are key and it is so important to get this basic stuff right. A definite lack of appetite was not helping.
From here it was pretty rubbish. Through the sprawl of Matsumoto there was traffic, traffic lights and no rhythm to be found. Once beyond here though, the roads opened up and Jerome put the hammer down. Much to our amusement, a fast Japanese rider, who had struggled to get ahead in the town, finally capitulated, jumped on the proffered wheel and joined the Jerome 45km/h train. It is my honest belief that if there are any complaints with regard to a ‘Positivo’ rider jumping lights or not perfectly obeying the rules of the road (impossible!), then there will be still far more people expressing their joy to have jumped onto our pacelines.
Unfortunately this is where I hit a bit of a wall… 170km or so into the ride. Not a bonk as such, but a distinct drop in power. Yair was suffering too, heads went down, our pace dropped. On what was seemingly the ONLY road in the whole of Japan without a conbini we toiled on until finally we came across a Seven/Eleven in Omachi. I dived into a bowl of mabotofu, washed down with a Coke. Still struggled with a lack of appetite, but brain kicked in and needs took over. Saw Tom ride past as we lay on the ground in front of the store. Yair took to pouring water over his head to try and rejuvenate.
Back on the bikes and off to Hakuba. Finally we had some scenery. Quite inspiring to be riding with the snow covered mountains as a backdrop, especially after so many kms of boring Japanese towns. This was a fast road and as soon as our ‘lunch’ settled we were hammering it to the last checkpoint.
Checkpoint 4. We pulled into Hakuba and were directed left to be presented with an amazing backdrop of a snow laden Happo-one with numerous paragliders soaring above. Timestamps done, Jerome did an excellent job of rallying everyone so that we didn’t hang about for too long, given that we had just had a good break 20kms or so earlier. Steve was able to just get in his seventh (eighth?) visit of the day before our intrepid Frenchmen was banging on the toilet door, poor guy.
The Jerome train left the station, collected a few extra riders and we had a great paceline going. I had missed the jump on a light and found myself off the back. It was a great sight to see the two bright orange jerseys of Jerome and Dominic at the head of the train, with 8 or 9 guys in sync behind. My lunch had finally kicked in, so down the cassette and I moved up and through to join them. Three of us on the front in identical team kit, with riders lined up behind looked very PRO.
This section is infamous for its tunnels. Full of traffic, large trucks and not much room to get by. Scary stuff. Especially when the knob-head driver leans on the horn or worse moves in too quickly after passing. I would happily meet any of these people out of their car or truck and see how brave they are. Cocks.
We were piling through a slightly uphill tunnel and a machine gun went off… rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat. Something was caught round my crank, whipping against the carbon frame, and my ankle. WTF? Speed reduced, it stopped, but as I pulled off the road I found to my dismay a broken rear spoke. What can I say, you put that much power down, something’s gonna break man. The offending spoke was wrapped up with a Park Tools adhesive tire patch kindly donated by Steve and we were back on the road. With somewhat of a wobble! Without the spoke, the rear wheel was buckled, but with the rear brake off, there wasn’t too much rubbing or any other physical problem. My mind, however, was running through all sorts of wheel failure scenarios as we descended to Itoigawa at 40km/h. Yikes.
Expecting a 290km+ ride, it was somewhat of an anti-climax to be directed into the hotel carpark at the 283km mark. Final timestamp and we were done at 4:30pmish. 12.5hrs, 10hrs riding. Average (moving) speed a smidge over 28km/h, chuffed with that.
The onsen was glorious, our very own Roubaix shower scene with grime covered arms, legs and faces. We were back on the bikes with very sore behinds and down to the local train station. A 6:43pm green car ticket (ah, blissful comfy seats!) took us to the Shinkansen at Echigo-Yuzawa, back into Tokyo at 9:20pm, home 9:45pm.
I would like to thank my team mates for all their support in completing an important Japanese cycling milestone. The event was very well organised. The route was not very inspiring but well thought out, although the traffic sucked. Next year? Not so much.