And after about 130km of cycling, I realised my old friend Mr Pain had arrived, uninvited as usual, and was making free use of the facilities, helping himself to the contents of the fridge and monopolising the home entertainment system. Until then the ride had been going swimmingly and, truth be told, Mr Pain was not at his most belligerent and silent disdain eventually unnerved him and he went home early although his less-offensive sidekick Mr Dull Throb hung around until the 200km was up.
I have joined the international siblinghood of randonneurs with my modest brevet ride yesterday – 200km is the minimum distance for an event to come under the auspices of Les Randonneurs Mondiaux. They are even sending me a medal for my efforts. Mr Kon and I have been looking forward to this event for some time. It’s the first organised cycling event of the season and for me it would be my longest ride yet. A few weeks ago in the car on the way home from a training ride, I was wondering why Kazuko and Mr Kon kept discussing blueberries. When I asked Kazuko later, she seemed confused and then realised the Japanese pronunciation of brevet (remember it’s a French word, and that Japanese doesn’t have a ‘v’ sound) is bu-ru-be. Blueberry is, of course, bu-ru-be-ri. You can see how I might be confused. As a result of this hilarious anecdote, I’ve been referring to the brevet ever since as the blueberry ride. At least it helps me to remember the correct pronunciation in Japanese.
The ride started and finished in Obihiro, a small city about 200km from Sapporo and on the other side of a mountain range so we drove out a day early and stayed the night in Obihiro to be ready for the 7am start. Most of the riders had dinner together that evening and at least one of them, Mr Murayama (I hope I’ve remembered his name correctly, as I’ll refer to him again later) had ridden to Obihiro from Sapporo and was going to ride home again the day after the ride. Partly to encourage people to overcome their reluctance to take holidays, Japan has several public holidays together. Last Thursday was a holiday and Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week are also holidays. The Japanese call this week Golden Week and this is the reason Mr Murayama is able to spend three days cycling. After the dinner, Mr Kon and I retired to our hotel for a final can of beer (excellent preparation, n’est ce pas?) and I spent a little time studying the course on my iphone’s very handy map feature before getting to bed nice and early.
Spring has definitely arrived in Hokkaido since last weekend and I woke up to a clear blue sky and the promise of warm weather. We headed out to the starting point where there were already plenty of cyclists milling about, looking slightly dorky in reflective gear (it’s in the brevet rules – you have to wear something reflective.) We looked like this:
I think there were about 60 starters – not a bad turnout. Here is a photo of Mr Kon before the start, looking cheerful and modelling the cheapest option – a reflective sash. I wore a similar one that I bought at a 100-yen shop.
At dinner the night before, I learnt that no one has done the ride in less than seven hours before, so I quickly made that my secret goal for the ride. We started in two groups. I was in the first group that left at 7.00am sharp and Mr Kon was in the second group at 7.02. We headed north through the middle of town and then right on to route 38. We were setting a pretty good pace but there were plenty of traffic lights along the way so our average speed was in the mid-twenties by the time we finally got out onto the open road. We were soon riding at a pretty comfortable pace of about 40kmh and in a group of five people.
Our course was pretty simple. Start at Lawson’s convenience store, head out onto route 236 and go north to route 38. Follow that until we get to route 336 and take that to the second checkpoint then head back the same way and turn on to route 236 and follow that one home:
The checkpoints were at convenience stores. The first checkpoint was manned so we could get our brevet cards signed but after that we had to buy something from the shop and keep the receipt. The first checkpoint was after about 40km and by the time we got there, we were down to a group of four, including Mr Murayama (whose name I’m still hoping I’ve remembered correctly). It was too early to stock up on anything from the shop, so we just got our cards signed and headed off again. There were a few comments made about how fast we were going but it wasn’t just us, as Mr Kon later said he had seen us leaving checkpoint one as he was arriving.
I was feeling pretty good at this point and ended up riding at the front of our group for much of the rest of the way except when I had a rest to eat something or take a photo:
We turned off onto route 336 together and came to the only hilly section of the ride. Our average speed was about 32-33kmh and we were generally doing faster than that so I was filled with hope that I could obtain my goal of finishing within seven hours. It was a sunny day and the scenery was beautiful. We had passed many picture-book farms and had snow-capped mountains as a backdrop. The hilly section had some huge eagles flying around and there was hardly any traffic on the road.
I was enjoying myself and found a nice, steady rhythm up the hills so I was a bit surprised when, about 75km into the ride, I looked around on a descent and realised we had dropped Mr Murayama (not surprising – remember he’s doing 600km in three days!) and the chap in the red top. It was just me and the chap below:
We rode together for a while but he started flagging up the hills as well. It was pretty warm by now and everyone had started with more clothes on than me so I was benefitting from my choice of clothing as well as having two water bottles instead of just the one that you can see in the picture above (the second one is a container for tools, money etc.). By the time I clocked up my 100th kilometre, I was on my own. I was making good time and seemed on target for a sub-seven-hour ride but when I got out of the hills and near the coast, I was suddenly hit by very strong cross-winds and realised I was going to be riding into the wind most of the way back from the second checkpoint. One gust came out of nowhere and nearly took the bike out from under me and I found I was riding a lot of the way with the bike leaned over to the right.
Checkpoint two was at the 120km mark and I stocked up on drinks and had a bit of a stretch. I was four hours into the ride and wary of how I was going to go into the wind but still fairly optimistic of achieving my goal. Mr Blue arrived as I was leaving the shop and another group of four cyclists arrived just before I left. Because I was back-tracking, I was able to wave at plenty of randonneurs until I got on to route 236.
I’d say the wind was about 20 knots and I made the mistake of over-doing it in my efforts to keep my average speed up. Eventually this caught up with me and my shoulders and back started hurting more and more. My stomach was churning a little and my legs had turned to jelly. Every time I looked at my cycle computer, the distance didn’t seem to have changed and I was looking at it far too often. To make things worse, the road had become quite busy and the scenery a little more mundane (although still quite nice – I just wasn’t in as good a condition to appreciate it). I had no choice but to send my self to Bruce’s Happy Place where I spent the next 40km or so imagining happy scenes and singing repetitive songs to myself. I would love to say the kilometres flew by after this, but that would be a lie. It did at least pass the time quite bearably, though as I looked forward to check point three at 176km. When I got there, I had a popular cola drink to force a bit of sugar and caffeine into the system and had a nice long sit down and a stretch. I had expected to see some other riders here as I had been going pretty slowly and I assumed the riders behind me were still in a group and had been able to work together into the wind, but there was still no sign of anyone by the time I got back on my bike.
I certainly felt happier with less than 25km to go and although I was still pretty stiff all over, my legs felt strong and I was able to escape some of the pain by standing up to pedal for relatively long stretches. I had the gradient read out turned off on my bike computer during the ride because I didn’t want it to interfere with my expectations of speed, so I was interested to look at the elevation chart for the ride this morning:
Because it was such a long ride and the elevations are fairly low, it makes the gradients look steeper than they were. I actually did not notice that the last 25km were almost all downhill. At the time I just thought I had my mojo back. As I got back into town, there were more and more traffic lights but instead of being the irritation they were on the way out, I was pretty pleased with the chance to have a quick stretch. Much earlier, floundering into the wind doing just 20kmh (and slower into the bigger gusts) I had given up hope of beating seven hours but I was the first finisher and came in with a fairly respectable time of 7h31m. The next finisher was riding partner from earlier in the day, Mr Blue, who was about 25 minutes behind me. Mr Murayama and Mr Kon finished together with a time of just under eight and three-quarter hours. Here’s Mr Kon looking a little more tired than when we arrived in the morning:
And whereas I was able to rest up after the ride, Mr Kon still had to drive the car all the way home. Thanks very much for the lift!
The next blueberry ride is in June. 300km starting and finishing in Sapporo. I’m still undecided but I’m leaning toward doing it on the Trucker but taking my time about it next time.
Footnote: Although there were some aches and pains while doing this ride, it was never really all that bad. The most pain I’ve had on any ride was doing a 160km time trial in April last year. At the time, that was the longest ride I had ever done and I think the pain was all the more intense because a time trial in just the one position with your arms pointing forward and tucked in under the chest. Just for the sake of perspective, here’s a report that I wrote in an email at the time:
There were just the four laps of 40km but at the turn off from Mundijong Road into St Albans, there was a marshal noting intermediate times. And of course that point was a bit beyond the half-way mark of the circuit. However, if there had been just 20km laps, rest assured I would have stepped off my bike with 20kms to go. I really do feel I should try to capture some of the pain for posterity.
The first 100km was fine, a stroll in the park, in fact. Then I started getting those usual pains that you get toward the end of a long ride: sore shoulders, stiff back, uncomfortable in the saddle, but all not too bad – I was out of the saddle a bit more than I had been but, on finishing lap three, I anticipated things wouldn’t get too much worse – maybe I’d even get a second wind. Round the corner into Punrak and I thought I’d get out of the saddle for a bit to work out some of the pain and then found the body refusing to go back into TT position. I don’t know where the pain was coming from – it just seemed to be a dull throbbing from everywhere that said not to go back into that position. The legs didn’t seem to be too bad but pushing much faster than 30kph just seemed to make everything say no.
But I was on the last lap! I’d be home soon! Until a quick calculation told me at 30kph I had an hour of this to go. I changed screens on the GPS so I couldn’t see my average speed free-falling and just concentrated on how far I had to go. I wasn’t even on to Mundijong Road yet and already could not find a single comfortable position on the bike. But never mind – the turn to Mundijong Road was coming up and I could wave to Big John. But he wasn’t there – he had gone. And somewhere along Mundijong Road, the laughter died. Maybe that lady who overtook another car coming towards me on lap two could come back and finish me off properly. My feet were throbbing – I could feel the cleat through the shoe and every pedal stroke was just a little bonus pain.
Change hand position, change hand position, stretch back, stand up with hands on drops, change hand position, stretch back, stand up and pedal with hands on hoods, check speedo, celebrate 20km to go, wish it would all just go away, realise it won’t, consider getting off the bike and surrendering to the marshal on the corner of St Albans Road, wonder why the kilometres won’t tick over faster just because I’m staring intently at speedo. With about 15km to go, in absolute agony I went past a horse farm (what are those places called?) which had beautiful green grass in front of it. The voices said to get off the bike and just lie down on the grass. The lush, green grass. All the pain will go away. And I would have except I realised I’d have to ride back to my car at some stage anyway.
14.2km to go, 14.1km to go, try the TT position, nope – still hurts even more than everything else. Still 14.1km to go, still 14.1, that light post up there must be 14km to go. Okay, now focus on the next light post. Finally with about 10km to go, I talked myself into getting back into the TT position and pushing the speed up – yes, it hurts like hell, but the faster you go, the sooner it will be over. I even managed to get the speed back up to over 35kph although the sea breeze at my back helped a lot. The corner into No-Hopelands Road nearly shook the last bit of life out of me but I made it across the finish line, pulled over at Jesse’s car, didn’t know where to lean my bike so threw it on the ground, lay down on the sand and pine cones, took off my shoes and enjoyed some soreness as opposed to constant, nagging pain.
The wine at my parents’ bbq helped bring some life back into me but it’s only today that I’ve managed to start feeling some joy at not just finishing but even managing to get the time I wanted. And of course, yes, I would do it again. Not in a rush, but if I’ve made it through once, the body’s got used to it so I’m sure the pain will be at least a little less next time.