And while I’m at it, it’s long overdue time I posted about this awesome ride last August. 1500km in six days was a lot of fun coupled with the odd bit of pain. At the time when I finished, I was sure I would never do something like this again but now I could probably be persuaded otherwise. Anyway, I started writing this post ages ago but never got around to finishing it:
This was a wonderful ride and not just because it’s taken me so long to write about it and the memories of the pain have truly faded. I had been looking forward to this since the Hokkaido audax guys had announced it about a year earlier. It wasn’t a single ride but a series of audaxes: a 200km on the first day followed by a 400km, then a 600km, and a 300km to finish with on the last day. Kazuko and I got back from our tour on the Tuesday and the Paradise Week GT started the following Sunday. I spent the time between eating, drinking and catching up with friends. I also managed to catch a cold. So with a bit of a sniffle, bright and early on Sunday morning, I said goodbye to Kazuko and pedalled over to Kon-san’s place. We rode together to the start point at Moerenuma Park. We saw entrants on the way. If being on a road bike wasn’t enough, audax riders all stand out because the rules say we must wear reflective vests all the time. There turned out to be quite a few entries: about 60 people had entered all four rides and there were a few more people doing just the 200km that day. There were a few familiar faces from previous audaxes I’d ridden in Japan but also a lot of people had come up from Honshu (the main island) to escape the summer heat.
After the briefing, we had the regular pre-audax check-in to make sure we had enough lights and were wearing our safety vests. Once that was out the way, we were free to start. Yutaka and I had had pre-audax strategy drinks at his cousin’s izakaya a few days earlier and we had decided that speed was not going to be a priority for the week ahead. Riders were allowed to start once they had passed muster but we took our time and were among the last to leave.
Because we started late, we found ourselves steadily overtaking other riders. Our strategy had been to keep our own pace and not get caught up in the snowball effect that seems to happen at the start of these rides. A group will form up and the people in it will ride as if it’s a bunch ride with the people at the front pulling a turn. The speed starts to get faster and faster when, in fact, everyone should be conserving energy to make it around such a long course. Kon-san and I had decided we didn’t really want to go much faster than 30km/h during the audaxes and that we should target an average speed of about 25km/h (or less) including stopped time.
The road north is not one of my favourites. It’s a bit too narrow and a bit too busy to ever really relax. Luckily we had a bit of wind behind us to give us a nice push. We enjoyed sometimes riding with others and sometimes being on our own again.
A light drizzle had started as we had left Sapporo and this eventually turned into proper rain so I didn’t get my camera out much. The camera is waterproof but the rest of the contents of my handlebar bag weren’t. Eventually we turned left off the main road and toward the coast on a much quieter country road. here it is below:
At first we were a bit worried that we had taken a wrong turn because we couldn’t see any other riders but the rain eased and we could see tyre marks from riders ahead of us. We had some low mountains to climb over before descending to the coast and heading south for our checkpoint.
When we got back on the road, we had a wonderful tailwind and ended up cruising along at speeds in the mid to high 30s. It’s a bit of a trap when riding long courses like this one – with only 50km to go, you can fool yourself into thinking the goal isn’t that far away until you start to question whether you can keep that pace up for another hour or more. We ended up finishing the 200km in about seven and a half hours and were the fourth and fifth riders to finish. The first two guys were in a different league to everyone else. They had aero bars and laminated cue sheets and all sorts of things. They finished all the rides miles ahead of everyone else. It’s not a competition, you know!
That night we had a good, old-fashioned booze up, which I enjoyed very much. Of course, it had been our plan to have just the one beer because we had to ride the next day but naturally we ended up having a couple more and as the only foreigner there, I was obliged to have a bit of sake as well. All things considered, I think we got off lightly and woke up fairly well the next morning. The 400km ride didn’t start until midday but we had to ride 20km up to the start point.
My favourite bit before the start was looking at what other people were riding. I really enjoyed watching one guy who had aero bars fitted on his carbon bike with Zipp 404 full carbon tubulars. He was that keen to get going, he was doing laps of the car park. I’d really like to know how he got on with his carbon brakes on the rainy descents but I’ll never find out because we never saw him again.
One of the problems with these long rides is I worry about my GPS unit running out of power so I try to charge it when I can but this results in it resetting the ride so here is the map of the 400km in three parts:
We headed up the coast before turning right and riding through the mountains. Our plan really was to go slowly for this one and we did much better job of it than the previous day. We also had some nice weather before the inevitable rain.
Our plan also involved eating as much as possible while riding but I find the further into the ride I am, the harder it is to keep eating. This wasn’t a problem yet but would be toward the end of this ride. The first checkpoint was at a town in the mountains and after stopping at the local convenience store, we went to a soba shop at the train station, as did many of the other riders. I could have had several bowls but it had been a long stop and we needed to get back on the road.
Our next checkpoint was after we had descended from the mountains and got back to the coast. Even though this happened more than half a year ago, I recall eating two large bento boxes for dinner. I’m sure one was a curry rice and have vague memories of there being a big hamburger patty involved in there somewhere as well.
Then we switched on our headlights and started enjoying our first night ride of the series. The great thing about riding at night is there is so much less traffic. Which is just as well because it rained and the wet road also had a few cracks and potholes that I wasn’t so keen to ride into. Also, because of my handlebar bag, I’d had to mount my headlight off the fork and it didn’t have the coverage that I would have liked. However, once we found our rhythm, we made pretty good time thanks to another tailwind.
We got to the next checkpoint at about 10.30pm or thereabouts and had ridden about 220km. The tailwind had me thinking we could have a go at riding through the night but when we got to the checkpoint, Mr Muto mentioned that there might be places to sleep at nearby, we both suddenly found ourselves quite tired. We knew there was a hot-spring hotel nearby but my map book also said there was a rider house somewhere. We rode up looking for that cheaper option but hadn’t found it by the time we got to the hotel. The night staff quoted us a price which seemed fairly reasonable for two people until we went to pay and discovered that had been the price for one person. I can’t remember how much it was but it was quite a bit considering how little we slept. We didn’t even have time for a dip in the hot-spring waters.
The next morning, we still had 180km to go but the scenery was pretty good.
I had learnt my eating lesson from the day before and filled my handlebar bag full of rice cake snacks to munch on while riding but without such a handy bag, Yutaka started running out of steam. We didn’t have too far to go to the finish but stopped anyway at an old train station that had become a noodle shop.
That night all the riders were staying at the same accommodation: a big rider house on the outskirts of the town. We finished the ride just inside 24 hours and checked in to the rider house, cleaned our bikes a little, had a wash and then an afternoon nap. Tomorrow would be the start of the big one, so the key here was to get as much rest as possible. We napped all afternoon and got up for the big feast with all the other riders.
I think I was the first to bed and pretty much the last to get up in the morning. The 600km was the big one. It was time to break the back of this gran turismo. So far, we had done 200km a day for three days. Now it was time to turn up the pace to 300km a day over three days.
Here are the maps of the 600km:
We started out along the coast into a light headwind before arriving at the Shiretoko Peninsula. I had ridden over this the previous year but from the other direction and I’d been looking forward to riding it again. It’s world heritage listed and quite delightful.
As we climbed, the clouds settled in and we were soon riding through a mist that got thicker and thicker. By the time we got to the top, some of the race organisers were there to tell us to turn our lights on for the descent.
As it turned out, we didn’t need our lights. The clouds were only sitting on one side of the mountains. As soon as we crested the pass, the weather was perfect for our descent: about 15km of tortuous road and lovely views.
Near the bottom, there is a free hot spring but we had no time to stop and bathe. Our checkpoint lay at the town at the bottom and then it was time to head along the coast. We had good fortune with a tailwind again but it also started to rain on us. We still had a long way to go and the wind helped us with our strategy of never pushing too hard on the pedals. As we got further along the coast, it became more of a side wind so that when we got to the Notsuke Peninsula, we were leaning sideways on our bikes both on the way out and back.
Because of all the rain, I didn’t take so many photos on this day but it was quite interesting to see the sea so rough on one side and so still on the other.
We cycled on to Nemuro, where we stopped for a hearty dinner of some convenience store bento before heading out around the Nemuro Peninsula. At the tip of the peninsula was a secret checkpoint. This involved answering a question about what was there. Naturally the question was in Japanese and Mon-san could help me with it but we took a picture as well to prove that I had been there.
The ride around the peninsula was one of the highlights of the day. It had been a wet and busy road out to Nemuro but once past the town, it was nice and quiet again and the rain did us the favour of turning into mere drizzle. The peninsula was mainly grassland with mildly undulating hills and plenty of surprise deer by the side of the road.
We had another little feed at a convenience store once we were back in Nemuro and planned what we would do for the night. We had a couple of sleeping options but also some calculations to make. Audaxes have a 15km/h time limit which also counts for all the check points along the way. This meant if we slept too long, we might miss the cut-off for the next check point, even though we would still finish the whole ride with in the 15km/h limit. There was a closer spot to sleep but that meant we would have to get going at some ridiculous early hour in the morning to make the next check point at Nakashibetsu. We ended up deciding to ride to Nakashibetsu, visit the check point there and then find somewhere to sleep in town. This turned out to be a bit problematic because we arrived in town just before midnight and got lost a few times, reflecting poorly on the state of our decision-making after 18 hours of cycling. At one point it looked as if we would have to spend the night sleeping in a laundromat until we managed to find a business hotel that had a night clerk and we at least got to sleep in a bed and have the prospect of breakfast in the morning.
We both woke up actually feeling worse than we had when we went to sleep. We had done 360km the day before and we could certainly feel it. We struggled through breakfast and struggled to get back on our bikes. At least we didn’t have to go very hard to make the next check point in time. Which was lucky because we got lost several times and managed to add about 20km to the distance we needed to go that day.
Also, Kon-san was finally feeling the pinch. Whereas I was riding on my comfortable touring bike, he was doing the ride on his good road bike. The problem for him was that low handlebars are good for a short race but over the length of this ride, his body position was just too low and he was having troubles holding his head up any more. The trouble with these long rides is that the pain, once it starts, isn’t going to go away and usually gets worse. Kon-san had been battling away for quite a while now and was struggling. He tried a desperate remedy – taping some coffee cans to his handlebars to get his position a little higher.
After the checkpoint, it was time to climb up to Lake Mashu. I got all excited about climbing and took off ahead of Kon-san. The climb up was great and we finally had some nice weather. I had ridden to Lake Mashu the year earlier and both times had been lucky to have a clear view of the lake. It is usually hidden in mist.
At the top I waited for Kon-san and he showed up cheerful but rather the worse for wear. He told me he was going to pull out of the ride because he was struggling badly.
I had really wanted us to finish together but by the time we got to the bottom, I couldn’t really argue. Kon-san did some quick bus research and found he would be able to get to Obihiro, our destination, before me so we agreed to meet there at the end of the day.
On my own, I found a fresh burst of energy and did the rest of the ride at a pretty good pace. By the time Kon-san pulled out, we were the last riders on the road. I kept up a steady rhythm and was soon passing plenty of other riders. There was a great climb on the way to Lake Akan, followed by a fun descent and the rain was never so heavy that it was a hinderance. The last 40km or so were mildly downhill and I finished at a decent pace, arriving in Obihiro exactly 36 hours after I started. Kon-san was waiting for me at the hotel and we went out and had a bite to eat and a beer. The next day I rode to the start of the last audax – just 300km – and he headed back home to Sapporo.
On the start line, everyone was looking pretty weary after our efforts of the previous five days. Some people had come from Sapporo to do just this one audax and they stood out by their eagerness. Although we didn’t really see much of each other on the road, a bit of camaraderie had grown between those of us who were riding the whole thing and were still standing – the bad weather during the 600km ride had caused a few people to pull out. We chatted and took a few photos of each other before heading off for the last stage.
I think I made a bit of a mistake of targetting 25km/h for this final one. I probably didn’t realise how worn out I had become. It’s interesting how drained your body can get after a few days of continuous riding like this. It gives me some inkling of how it is for grand tour riders who have to keep going every day for three weeks.
We had just one mountain pass to go over and after that it was mainly downhill all the way. I pushed well over the mountain and down the other side but as I was riding toward the first checkpoint, I found I was totally drained. Not just tired but my head couldn’t get itself around keeping going. I slowed down a bit, ate what I had, and hoped I would ride myself through it but in the end, all I could think was bugger this, I’d like to head home. So I decided to pull out and take a short cut back to Sapporo.
Perhaps not too surprisingly, once I’d made that decision, I felt a lot better. This could have been a sign to keep going but I decided to let it reinforce the value of my decision. Even with my short cut, I was pretty sure that I had done enough extra kilometres between audaxes and in getting lost to have done 1500km in six days and I could think of no compelling reason to possess anything that stated I had finished the ride.
Another thing to justify my decision was the pain in my leg. During the 400km ride, my left pedal had started to become hard to unclip from and the effort seemed to have hurt the muscle in my left leg. I oiled the pedal after the ride and thought that would be the end of it but during my ride home, the pain came back to the point where I couldn’t ride out of the saddle at all and when the road got a bit rough, I had to stop pedalling because of the pain that was shooting through. I could barely walk for the next week.
My shortcut was a pretty pleasant one. I had ridden that way a year earlier with Damian at the end of our tour of Hokkaido with Kazuko so it did hold happy memories of a few days spent cycling together. My short cut ended up being only about 60km but with the pain in my leg and some pretty heavy rain on the road back to Sapporo, especially as it was dark by the time I finished, I really was happy to have cut things short.
I got to the final check point just after the first two riders and hung around waiting for Kon-san and Kazuko to come and give me a lift home. In the end, my total distance was just over 1500km for the six days. When Kon-san and I met up for drinks a few days later, we swore we would never do anything so stupid again but now I’m starting to wonder whether I shouldn’t give something like this another go. Time does that, I suppose.