Downloading routes from RouteLabo (Yahoo LatLongLab)

Most of the brevets I ride are with AJ NishiTokyo, a randonneuring club based in the Machida/Sagamihara area. One thing I like about their rides is that they provide a link to a RouteLabo page for each event (RouteLabo is an online map service run by Yahoo Japan). This page shows a map of the course as well as download links for KML, GPX and TCX files of the course. By copying these files to your GPS device (Garmin or other) or by uploading a KML file to Google “My Maps” for your smartphone, you can almost completely do away with the need for paper cue sheets. I navigate all my brevets and many of my personal rides by following a “breadcrumb trail” on the screen of my GPS unit.

Unfortunately other clubs often only provide a map without any download option, like this Randonneurs Tokyo 2018 BRM421 Tokyo 600 Lake Hamana (BRM421東京600浜名湖鰻) page:

This does not help you much on the road. Without a link to the full RouteLabo page with download links, there’s no obvious way to obtain a GPX or KML file. You are still expected to navigate via printed turn instruction on a paper cue sheet, which I find cumbersome and error-prone.

However, there is a way!

The web page uses some Javascript code to display the map off the RouteLabo website, including a magic value that identifies the particular course to be shown. To see this value, view the source code of the page. This step varies by browser and operating system. On Chrome under MS Windows, Ctrl+U will show the source code, on a Mac under Chrome, Option+Command+U will do it. On Safari, once you enable the option via Safari > Preferences > Advanced > Show Develop Menu, you can also use Option+Command+U (just like in Chrome).

In the displayed HTML code, search until you find a line for Javascript like this one:

<script type="text/javascript" encoding="UTF-8" src="https://latlonglab.yahoo.co.jp/route/paste?
id=b86f940851b6ebed2538ffc5f80b2fc8&width=480&
height=640&mapstyle=map&graph=true&maponly=true"></script>

The value consisting of 32 hexadecimal characters (128 bit) after “id=” is the magic value you’re looking for. A full RouteLabo page URI with the download options will look like this:

https://latlonglab.yahoo.co.jp/route/watch?id=b86f940851b6ebed2538ffc5f80b2fc8

By replacing the value after “id=” in the URI with the ID from inside the HTML code using copy and paste, you will get a browser URI that will give you full access to the route, including route file download links to feed your GPS device of choice. You can then bookmark it for future reference. Bonne route! 🙂

The Joy of Six Hundred (revisited)

The Elephant NFE at the start

I’m back from my longest ride of the year, BRM604, a 600 km randonneuring event from Machida to Lake Suwa (Suwako) in Nagano and back. Had I successfully completed it under the 40 hour time limit I would have made Super Randonneur (SR), the feat of completing brevet distances of 200, 300, 400 and 600 km in one season. As it were I dropped out after the halfway point and cycled back to Tokyo at my own pace. The total came to 580 km with 4561 m of elevation gain. This makes June my 46th month in a row with at least one ride of 160 km or more.

In 2013 AJ NishiTokyo organized a trial run for a new 600 km brevet course (2013BRMpre921) which I joined. You can read the report I wrote about it here. Not even having successfully completed a 400 km brevet at the time, it was not entirely surprising that I DNF’ed (Did Not Finish) that ride. The experience did not discourage me from trying again in 2014 (2014BRM621) and 2015 (2015BRM530).

I did complete 400 km rides in both 2015 and 2016, the latter on my new Elephant NFE randonneur bike. With more experience I planned better this year, but in many ways the outcome was remarkably similar to that very first attempt.

On my first attempt my biggest problem was the huge spread in temperatures between daytime in Shizuoka and night time in Nagano. In 2014 I cycled a lot of the distance in the rain.

This year I prepared by wearing or carrying clothes for hot, cold and wet weather including shorts and trousers, short and long underwear, a wind breaker, a rain jacket and full fingered gloves.

I also addressed the sleep deprivation by getting as much sleep as possible upfront. I avoided staying up late several days before the event. On Friday I checked into a hotel in Sagamihara at 19:00, with lights out by 20:00 to get up at 03:00 for the 05:00 start from Machida. With all the extra clothes I found my bike quite heavy on the Onekansen climbs to Machida. My legs did not feel in shape. I finished my early convenience store dinner in my hotel room and went to bed as early as I could.

At the ride reception

Takeru Daijo's bike

There were 38 people at the start. A couple more had signed up but chose not to start, perhaps due to the weather forecast, which included a high chance of rain on the second day. This is already the tsuyu season (rainy season), with hydrangeas in full bloom everywhere.

Hydrangeas in bloom

On the way to Enoshima, most participants already passed me. I was the last but one participant to get his brevet card signed at the untimed check point in Enoshima. I reasoned that at a 600 km brevet perhaps the mix is biased more towards the stronger sort of rider than it is at shorter distances.

Enoshima manned check

Unlike at the 300 km Mt Fuji brevet in March that takes the same route as far as Odawara I had very little chance of drafting anyone on the flattish first part. Still, I was over an hour ahead of schedule by then, based on the 15 km/h average used for checkpoint closing times. I took very few pictures and did not even stop for gorgeous Fuji views all the way from Enoshima to Odawara, as I wanted to put as much time as possible into the “time bank”. I knew I would need it for the big climbs and for having any chance at sleep later in the ride.

Atami castle

The weather started out as clear and sunny, getting pretty warm early on. Not until the afternoon did it get overcast and a bit cooler. I ended up drinking plenty of water throughout the ride, both when it was hot and later when temperatures dropped.

Once the coastal road started getting hilly as we crossed into Izu I could not really extend my time savings much, but at least the heat did not wear me out and I felt better than on the ride out to Machida the night before. I enjoyed the fast descent towards Shuzenji after the pass on Rt12 from the coast at Ito. Descending was definitely a strength for the Elephant NFE, as its wide 650B tyres float over uneven roads. At PC1, a Lawson conbini 141 km from the start I was about 1:15 ahead of the cutoff time, which is not a great amount, but not terrible either.

Near Shuzenji, Izu

From here to PC2, a Ministop conbini in Fujikawa 184 km from the start, the road was mostly flat so I was hoping to increase my time buffer. From Mishima to Fuji city the road is urban. The sky had become overcast and Mt Fuji was fully obscured by dense clouds. I was counting down distance to the river crossing, where the route turns away from the coast and becomes rural again. By PC2 my time buffer had only increased to about 1:20.

Railway bridge under construction

The next check point was 74 km after that was PC3, a Lawson in Minami Alps. The route became hilly, following the Minobu railway line before joining Rt52 and other flat roads again. It was more or less the same as the 400 km brevet, except clockwise around Mt Fuji instead of counterclockwise.

Evening approached in Yamanashi and with it a slow drizzle started. I put on my wind breaker and continued.

Between Izu and PC3 I only came across two other cyclists still on the same part of the course, meeting or leapfrogging each other at conbini stops.

When I rolled up to PC3 after 22:00, I was down to a single hour spare before cutoff time. The summit near Fujimi before Suwako was about 40 km away, almost all of it uphill.

Standing outside the Lawson in the rain, I made a phone call to the organiser, Mr H. at PC4 at Suwako. I told him where I was and how little time buffer I had left. I figured I might not make it to PC4 by the cut-off time and did not want to keep him waiting there, but he reassured me he would wait until the closing time and I should go for it.

I changed into my long underwear, winter trousers and rain jacket and headed towards Suwako. With the minimal time buffer, even if I made the next PC, I wouldn’t have much time to sleep before the next PCs. I figured I needed to be at PC6 at least 2 hours before closing time. From there it was a 30 km climb to a pass above Lake Motosu (Motosuko), which was the part I least liked about the 300 km AJ NishiTokyo brevet. Without that time buffer I couldn’t make it to PC7 at Yamanakako. So realistically, there was no chance I would complete the 600 and make SR this year. But I could still go for it and do better near Suwako than I had done the first time, to avenge my defeat by the cold temperatures then.

By this time the roads were pretty deserted, except for the occasional truck roaring past. The rain was pretty steady. The temperature was down to 13° C. Getting closer to Fujimi, I came across cyclists heading the other way, already past the halfway point and we waved or shouted encouragement at each other.

I arrived at PC4 with half an hour spare. Mr H. was sitting outside with one other cyclist. I bought food and drinks and got my receipt, then sat with them and talked. I said I was going to head on to PC5, which I had never made it to before. After the rest, Mr H. started packing up his chairs while the other cyclist and I headed back on the road.

It was now over 23 hours since I had got up and the need to get some sleep was starting to catch up with me. I did better sleep-wise than at any previous attempt, but once I climbed to Fujimi toge it became pretty clear I needed a nap. I couldn’t find any conbini with a cafe corner with chairs inside, so I stretched out right in front of another one in the parking lot, still sheltered by the roof of the building, with my spare clothes bag as a pillow. When I woke up again I felt better and headed on.

I then decided to give up PC5 and head back to Tokyo the same way I had done in 2013. Without a train option, my return would extend into Monday morning anyway, so it made sense to keep the route as direct as possible.

Passing a whisky distillery

From Fujimi to Minami Alps the route was almost exclusively downhill. My TRP Spyre disk brakes with sintered pads were effective in the rain but boy, are they noisy when wet! I hope I didn’t wake up any sleeping locals.

Anticipating the longest/fastest/most expensive underground (subway) in the world - the Chuo Maglev train

For the first time on any of my rides that passed through Minami Alps city I could not see Mt Fuji from the Yamanashi side — it was too cloudy.

As I headed south on Rt52 (Minobu michi) the views were very atmospheric: Low clouds on the mountains and steam rising from the forests.

I crossed the Fujikawa bridge for Rt9. The road heads up a rural valley, then climbs to a tunnel over to the adjacent valley to join Rt300 (Motosu michi).

The rain appeared to stop and I swapped my rain jacket for the wind breaker, but it soon resumed again.

By then sitting on the saddle got painful, as my bottom felt pretty sore now. Throughout the ride I had stood up as much as possible to give it some relief, but it didn’t help much.

Motosu climb

I also got sleepy again. Not quite halfway up the 650 m elevation gain from the base of the climb I decided to take another nap. I picked a small spot only about a meter from the road, where the guard rails formed an angle away from the road. A car would basically have to be crashing through them to hit me here. Again the spare clothes bag formed an excellent pillow.

The view from Motosu michi

The higher I climbed, the better the views got and the rain did eventually stop. I made a lot less progress than I had anticipated, especially with the nap, but I felt much better for it. Without any time limits I could take my time for pictures and to enjoy the views. I had enough bananas and water. If it wasn’t for my difficulty of sitting, it would have been great.

The 1000 yen shot

Finally I got to the tunnel that took me over to the lake shore. As I exited it, a stunning view of almost cloudless, almost snow free Mt Fuji behind Motosuko awaited me. I stopped for pictures. This is the scenic view depicted on the 1000 yen banknote, except that by June Mt Fuji has less snow on it than on that image.

An Elephant at Motosko

The road along the lake shore too me back to the main road to Kawaguchiko and Fujiyoshia, Rt139. On the climb I had already noted some difficulties cleating in with my right shoe. Not long after I got on Rt139 I encountered the opposite problem: I couldn’t disengage the foot from the SPD pedal. In the end I had to slip out of the shoe and stood by the road side in my sock, inspecting the pedal mechanism. It turned out that one of the two bolts attaching the cleat to the sole of the shoe had come undone. Consequently the cleat stayed locked to the pedal even when the shoe was twisted sideways to disengage it. Fortunately the loose bold had not dropped out yet, as the cleat mechanism of the pedal still held it in place. I got out my Allen keys, undid the other bolt and checked out all the parts. Then I but both bolts in place again, carefully matching the layout on my left shoe, whose bolt tension I also checked. After that I could ride on without problems.

Near Kawaguchiko I met Sebastian, a cyclotourist from Chile who had been riding from Fukuoka in Kyushu towards Tokyo. He greatly enjoyed his cycling experience in Japan. he was going to stay at a camp site near Mt Fuji for the night before heading on towards Tokyo the next day. We discussed routes and cycling in general in Japan.

Sebastian from Chile

The major roads around Kawaguchiko are in a notoriously bad state, but to my surprise I found that one major section heading into town had recently been renovated with smooth new asphalt. Hopefully the other direction and other parts will follow soon.

Maybe it was due to the rain in the morning, but instead of the bad traffic jams around Rt139 that I’m used to the roads were virtually empty — unheard of on a Sunday afternoon. I think traffic was the most quiet of any of my trips around the Fuji Five Lakes area. It was really enjoyable. Oh, and those Mt Fuji views! It only got better 🙂

After the climb from Fujiyoshida towards Yamanakako I could coast downhill a bit. At the traffic light on the lake shore I crossed over to the cycling path that runs around the east side of the lake. The sky was blue, Mt Fuji sat there in the evening light like on a picture postcard, the air was fresh and I had the cycling path virtually to myself. It was like the heavens were trying to make up for soaking us with rain the night before and the morning.

Mt Fuji sunset

I cycled to the convenience store next to the turnoff for Rt413 (Doshi michi) and took a break there. I enjoyed some coffee and warm food, then changed into warmer clothes again for the night ride on Doshi michi. The pass to Doshi was actually at the highest elevation of the entire course.

The climb from the lake to the pass felt steep as I got closer to the top, but it’s relatively short. After that comes a long fast descent to Doshi village and beyond. Again I felt very confident with the NFE’s tyres and brakes.

Beyond Doshi the road keeps going up and down, so I had to work again. During the daytime the nice views of the mountain valley will distract you, so somehow at night the road feels steeper and comes across as more work to ride on. Eventually I crossed from Yamanashi into Kanagawa prefecture and into Sagamihara.

Near the Rt76 intersection I again stopped for some sleep. I lay down for almost an hour. When I woke up again, I felt pretty disoriented, almost as bad as on that first 600 km ride. I felt like I was in a dream and had to force myself to accept that, no, this was reality. I couldn’t just go back to sleep and wake up at home — I was really out here in the mountains where it was cold and night time and I really had to cycle every single meter home to Setagaya before I could sleep in a warm bed.

Another thing the sleep deprivation does to me is that the “people detector”, the part of our brain that helps us pick out humans and their faces from all kinds of surroundings (something developed by evolution to help us survive in dangerous environments), seemed turned up to high gain or had its “false positive” filter turned off. Many a tree by the roadside started to look like a person standing there. It was really weird, but not the first time I experienced that.

At least that wasn’t dangerous and it didn’t scare me. On the other hand I was pretty determined that, should I get sleepy again I would not struggle on drowsy and risk falling asleep on the bike. I would stop wherever necessary and sleep some more. As it turned out I could make it home all the way to Tokyo with that Sagamihara nap.

It was a little after 04:00 on Monday morning when I finally reached my front door. The birds were already singing and it was only half an hour to sunrise, some 48 hours after I had arrived at the start for the registration desk and the safety briefing before the ride.

I took my bags off the bike, changed out of my cycling clothes, took a shower and went to bed. I did not get up again until 7 hours later, at noon 🙂

What worked and what didn’t

I had very few issues with my equipment. There wasn’t anything I was really missing, though some items could have been replaced with something more suited to the job.

My camera, my phones, navigation using a GPX breadcrumb trail on the Navi2Coach and Google MyMaps on the phone, charging my device on the ride — all these things worked flawlessly like on other rides before.

I had no issues with the tubeless setup of the Compass Babyshoe Pass tyres. I just added a bit of air on the second day (the third day since I left home), over 400 km into the ride.

My feeding routine worked too – about half my calories came from bananas, the rest split between liquid food (cocoa, sweetened milk tea) and various breads. I brought along figs, raisins and nuts and finished all of those.

I have a Swift Ozette XL randonneuring bag on order, which is supposed to arrive later this month. With that I wouldn’t have to split items between my small front bag, a clothes sack and a drawstring rucksack I mostly kept on top of the front bag. Chances are, I also wouldn’t have dropped my wallet on the road once (I quickly retrieved it) or have dropped a bunch of bananas another time (ditto). The Ozette XL will be very welcome.

The cleat failure on my Shimano SH-M088LE shoes could have been prevented with maintenance, but honest – who ever checks bolt tension on cycling shoes? Well, not me at least. The left shoe is gradually tearing up, perhaps as a late result of damaged suffered in a crash last November. In case case it looks like I’ll have to order a new pair soon, after something like two years and 20,000 km.

The flaky performance of the Wahoo speed and cadence sensor on this ride came as a disappointment. I’ve already taken it off the bike and instead installed the Garmin magnetless speed and cadence sensor set, which has been getting good reviews. This was one of the cases where trying to save money ended up costing even more money.

I didn’t use to have problems with my Brooks saddles, but I do now. Neither the current saddle on my Bike Friday nor on my NFE works as well as the first Brooks I had. I don’t know if it’s me getting older or if the saddles have changed, but we don’t get along as well as we used to.

The rain wear bag that I used to hold other spare clothes besides the rain wear itself turned out not to be rain proof. Duh, stupid me for making that assumption! Next time I’ll wrap my warm trousers into a separate bag, if I carry it like that. Riding in damp clothes made the night time ride a bit chillier. I’m happy with my Polaris rain jacket, but still looking for better rain trousers and some covers to keep my shoes drier. I could also do with a mudflap on the front mudguard to reduce water splashing onto the shoes when I ride through puddles.

My Honjo Turtle 58 mudguards worked OK, but the clearance is very tight on the front wheel. I’m still not 100% happy about that. I may still switch to something wider.

Things I could do with near my stem (but the Ozette may partly take care of that):

1) A battery holder for recharging the GPS and phone with a short cable. Keeping the battery in the front bag worked but required careful positioning of the battery to make the cable reach where it needed to.

2) A rainproof camera holder to make it quick to take pictures. I used two small pockets inside the front back, but it took a bit too much fiddling to reach for the camera and the Nexus 6P phone for pictures.

3) Some kind of food holder (for bananas, trail mix, etc) on the handlebar.

Not ready for Paris-Brest-Paris yet!

Having struggled even with 300 km brevets, being able to finish a 400 km one last year was kind of unexpected. But this year I was able to repeat that feat, completing 3 out of 4 events necessary for SR status, or for qualifying for Paris-Prest-Paris in 2019 (if I do the 200-300-400-600 then).

Right now, finishing a 600 under the time limit seems as remote from finishing a 400 as the 400 looked after finishing a 200 km years ago. I reckon I would have to somehow make it to Suwako at least two hours earlier to have any chance of finishing the event. That means I’d have to ride about 2 km/h faster on average through the first half of event, and the difference would have to be even greater in the second half compared to my post-DNF ride home. How likely is that? It doesn’t sound totally impossible, but it is still a big step.

Ultimately, I know I enjoy untimed events more than brevets, with the chance to take pictures, to enjoy different kinds of food, with leisure to talk to people you meet on the road.

But brevets also add a challenge and are a chance to meet other cyclists with different levels of experience. They take me further away from Tokyo.

Being able to participate in PBP is gradually becoming a bucket list idea for me, something unique I would like to try once in a lifetime, just like this 600 km is something crazy I only do once a year. Though partly through the ride I swore to myself I wouldn’t do this again, I am sure I will be back again next year and give it a good try again.

BRM423 400 km on the Elephant NFE (Mt Fuji Big Loop)

I have finished a 400 km brevet, repeating last year’s success, after an unsuccessful initial attempt in 2014. BRM423 NishiTokyo 400 km Fuji Big Loop (BRM423西東京400km富士大回り) was my third brevet on my new Elephant Bikes National Forest Explorer (NFE), after a 200 km brevet in Izu and a 300 km one around Mt Fuji. Previously I rode all my brevets on my Bike Friday Pocket Rocket.

Like most brevets by AJ NishiTokyo this brevet starts and finishes in Machida. It heads out towards Lake Yamanakako via Doshi road, then via Lake Motosuko to Minami Alps City. From there it turns down to the coast at Fuji City, crosses Izu peninsula via Shuzenji to Ito on the east coast and back up to Machida via Odawara. Altogether it visits four prefectures (Tokyo, Kanagawa, Yamanashi and Shizuoka).

This year it was a little too late for cherry blossom season even in the cooler mountain regions, but there are plenty of purple Wisteria (藤, fuji) in full bloom everywhere.

After my pre-ride of the course two weeks earlier I considered going back to the Bike Friday for its ease of taking it on a train should I not finish the ride. The week before the event I had a very busy schedule, taking friends from overseas to Meiji shrine, Asakusa, Kamakura, Mt Takao and the Tsukiji fish market among other places. Lots of walking and hiking and not quite enough sleep. However, after a final dinner on Thursday we said farewell and I slept in on Friday morning. I went for the NFE after all, to be able to compare it with last year’s ride. If I got sleepy some place in Izu I would simply find a place to sleep and cycle home at my own pace.

The night before the event

I left home around 18:30 on Friday as I had booked a room at the Tokyoko Inn in Sagamihara, about 2 km from the start. I first set off in cycling shorts, but after about a km turned around and got changed into long uniqlo trousers and also packed a pair of regular shorts. In my luggage were long johns and long sleeved underwear as well as a light wind breaker and my rain wear.

With all that gear I was covered for the full range of temperatures and weather conditions I might encounter. I even brought full fingered gloves, which I never needed, nor did I use the warm underwear. The rain wear I ended up only wearing briefly.

The rooms at the Tokyoko Inn are not luxurious but clean and functional and offer all the basic necessities. In my room I finished my conbini (convenience store) dinner and went to bed around 21:40. I slept reasonably well until my alarm woke me up at 05:20. After a shower and simple breakfast I got changed into my shorts, expecting I would not need trousers during daytime until at least Yamanakako. I was right – it was quite warm during the day, even up near Mt Fuji. While almost everybody at the start wore leg warmers or long lycra trousers, I was perfectly comfortable in my uniqlo shorts.

At the start

I got to the reception desk in front of the Cherubim bike shop fairly late, when people had already started moving on to the start point to get ready for the briefing. After getting my brevet card and saying hello to friends and taking some pictures, I also headed over. One cyclist showed up on his BD-1 folding bike.

At the briefing we were reminded of the risks of our sport: A few years ago a participant had badly crashed on the Rt300 descent from Motosuko and had to be airlifted by helicopter to the nearest hospital. “If you need a helicopter, please try to stay alive until the hospital in Kofu”, joked one of the staff members and reminded us that the ride isn’t over until we have safely reached our own front door.

After the briefing the safety check started (lights, reflective jacket, bell) and then we were off.

Via Doshi to Yamanakako

The weather forecast for Saturday was mostly cloudy, with some scattered rain during the night and on Sunday, which is pretty much how it played out.

Up until Doshi village most of the cherry blossoms were gone already, replaced by fresh seasonal green everywhere.

About 50 km from Machida we came across the quiz checkpoint and I took a picture of a poster on a particular drinks vending machine to prove that I had been there.

I bought some milk tea and had a banana or two, before heading on after the break.

I worked pretty hard up Doshi road to the village and made good time. This year I never fell behind the minimum average (15 km/h) counted from the start, unlike last year, where I was in deficit by the time I got to Yamanakako and only regained enough time on the biggest descent (from Motosuko to PC1) to stay 20 minutes ahead of cut-off time at PC1, 125 km from the start. This year I was an extra hour (1 hour 20 minutes) ahead at PC1 instead!

I could recover on the descent after the pass between Doshi and Yamanakako and it wasn’t as cold as when I rode it two weeks ago. Partly that was because I arrived much earlier in the day.

Yamanakako with Fuji-san:

The cherry blossom season at Yamanakako starts a lot later than in Tokyo:

After the lake we joined the main road, which always tends to be busy, but at least initially we could enjoy more descending. Then after the Fuji Q Highland theme park the road quality deteriorates and stays poor for a long time, but there’s no real alternative if you want to make good time.

Motosuko to Minami Alps

Motosuko is where you could find the Fuji view shown on the 1000 yen note, but often it’s obscured by clouds:

After the tunnel behind the lake (before which staff reminded us to switch on our lights) I started the descent. I did not even put on a wind breaker because it still wasn’t too cold. Last year this had been the coldest part of the brevet route. I could descend much faster than on my pre-ride two weeks earlier, where I had arrived here after sunset, but not wanting to try out Japanese helicopter rides I was still careful.

After PC1 the road was mostly flat for the next 27 km to PC3 in Minami Alps. We ended up with a good tailwind, which is always a pleasure. I chatted to a local road cyclist about our event and he took my picture. Around 15:30 I got to PC2, 151 km into the course, now almost 1:30 ahead of cut-off time – 1:10 faster than last year!

Minami Alps (Yamanashi) views of Mt Fuji:

Though I was concerned about facing a head wind on the way back from Minami Alps, this part of the route has a long downhill section, so the wind doesn’t really bother you because gravity takes care of it and your legs still recover.

Heading into the night

From Kajikazawa the route joins major Rt52 along the Fuji river. We shared the roads with lots of cars, trucks and buses until we got to the Rt300 bridge near Minobu, where we crossed over to the east bank to follow the Minobu railway line. Riding in the dark now I was starting to feel a little bit tired, but not too bad yet. At PC3 in Shibakawa I was now over two hours ahead of cut-off time. I rewarded myself with some fried chicken, a walnut bread stick and some cocoa.

It had started drizzling and I finally put on my rain wear, but soon found it too uncomfortable. The mesh inside the trousers was rubbing against my skin as I was still wearing my uniqlo shorts underneath. Also, the saddle felt very uncomfortable with this combination. So I found another conbini and changed into my regular trousers and my uniqlo windbreaker instead. Neither was as waterproof as the rain wear, but infinitely more comfortable and sufficient for the slight drizzle that kept coming and going.

About 4 hours after I had stopped at PC3 I arrived at PC4 near Shuzenji in Izu, after a long urban ride through Fuji City and Numazu towards the centre of the peninsula. Still almost two hours ahead, I treated myself to a cup of coffee and a bun with Wiener sausage. From here to the end of the ride I would see more and more people taking naps, but I did not join them yet.

I climbed about 8 km to the pass on Rt12 over to Ito. This was in the wee hours of the morning, so none of us could admire the beautiful views I had seen here two weeks earlier. The long descent to Ito was very welcome, giving me a chance to rest before the four major climbs along the coastal road to Odawara.

Near Atami I finally did lie down for a turbo-nap of only 10 minutes on the wet asphalt of a conbini. I set my alarm so as not to oversleep, rested my head on the rain wear bag as a pillow and dozed off. Next to me two other participants were sleeping. I found cyclists sleeping by the road side again and again as I was making my way to Odawara and on to PC5 near Fujizawa (90 km from PC4). A few breaks with coffee and food helped to keep me going. I knew I had a decent time buffer and was happy to eat into it to make the pace more comfortable.

Odawara to Machida

After Odawara the road flattened out but also got busier with Sunday morning traffic. At 06:24 I finally rolled up in front of the Circle-K store that served as the final control, PC5 – exactly one hour before closing time. I had 3:36 to cover the final 36 km, which I means I could make it with an average speed of no more than 10 km/h. With traffic lights I usually average around 18 km/h in central Tokyo. So I should have been fine.

My shoes and socks were wet from water from puddles that had splashed up. I was tired but only 36 km away from the goal, which is almost nothing if you’ve already done 10 times as much, right?

I struggled on, checking the time and remaining distance on the GPS regularly. I did another conbini stop for the toilet and food. The rain got worse.

Why tubeless with sealant is better

When the light turned green at the Rt246 intersection, I started up but noticed a funny wobble. I came to a halt on the opposite side and looked back – my rear tyre was complete flat. I had suffered a puncture! This was 16 km from the finish line.

I knew how hard both Shintaro and Tim had struggled when they mounted the tyres on my rims, so I wasn’t looking forward to the repair, but it was my only chance. A quick check found a glass shard of 3-4 mm embedded in the tread of the rear tyre and I pulled it out. I had two spare tubes with me, one in the front bag, one under the saddle, so theoretically I should have been able to recover from the problem, as long as I didn’t run out of time.

My fingers got greasy from the chain when removing the rear wheel, but that was a minor inconvenience. I got out my tool kit and tried prying the tyre off the rim using the plastic tyre levers. On the Bike Friday I could have done this by hand and the whole job would have taken no more than 10 minutes, but with the tubeless-ready Velocity Blunt SL rims the tyre beads are firmly seated and do not come off easily. It seemed like I would almost break the tyre levers before the beads would move. I just didn’t have the right technique.

I tried and tried and had almost given up when I finally managed to work my way into loosening it from one point and from there around the whole circumference. I could then remove the punctured tube. I installed the spare tube and slightly inflated it so it would hold its position, then began the equally tricky part of getting the bead to slide back over the rim, without puncturing the tube or tearing up the side walls. Then get the wheel back in, with the rotor sliding into the brake caliper and the cassette engaging the chain and derailleur. Somehow after some wiggling and more grease on my fingers everything came back into place again. Then inflate the new tube and hope it doesn’t explode from being pinched somewhere. I knew I wasn’t giving the tyre much pressure but the only pump I had was a mini pump I bought 4 1/2 years ago for my Bike Friday with its much less voluminous tyres.

I checked the time when I thought I had just enough air to risk going back on the road – 09:09, only 51 minutes left before 10:00. I collected all my bits and rode off.

I lost time at many red lights. It was only when I got down to about 3 km from the finish that I got confidence I would still make it.

At the finish line

In the end I rolled up in front of the Cherubim bike shop at 09:56, 4 minutes before event closing time. I think I had been the last person still on the course, as I didn’t see anybody else arrive after me. Everybody had been waiting for me. It was a great relief to have made it after all. This was my first puncture in any of the brevets I have done since 2012.

AJ NishiTokyo staff checking brevet card and receipts:

Taking shelter from the drizzle at the finish:

After the event closed, everybody helped breaking down the reception desk and tent and packed things up. We posed for a group photograph, said goodbye until the next event and we headed home.

Some 15 km after Machida I slept for another half an hour on a park bench by the side of the Tamagawa river, before I could complete my ride home: The ride is not over until you arrive safely at your front door! 🙂

Conclusions

First of all, my thanks to AJ NishiTokyo for this great event 🙂 Everybody got home safely, whether they DNF’ed or completed. It’s a great course and we were mostly lucky with the weather.

Like at the brevets in Izu (200 km) and the Fuji 300 km I was very happy with the Elephant NFE. It works very well for me. I make good time on it. Carrying luggage on the front carrier is surprisingly aerodynamic, as it shields the rider from wind and everything is always within easy reach. I’m planning on getting a bigger front bag though.

The difficulty of changing tubes with my current rim / tyre combination compared to the Bike Friday is a bit of an Achilles heel for this bike. I will have to rethink that. One option would be to move to a completely tubeless setup with sealant, which would at least take care of minor punctures, but I will have to see what tyres will work for that and what rim tape, valves and sealant to use.

The Bike Friday will gets its pump back and the NFE will get its own bigger pump.

I will also look for different rain pants. I have a very good Polaris rain jacket, but the trousers from a set I recently bought at a home center to replace a pair torn in a crash in November did not work well enough for long rides.

I don’t have any brevets scheduled for May, but in early June I’m signed up for BRM604 NishiTokyo 600 km Lake Suwa. I will again be riding it on the Elephant NFE and the experience gained from the last three brevets should help. Finishing a 600 km ride in 40 hours is still a long shot for me, but I’ll give it another try and even if I fail, I’ll see great countryside, meet nice people and bring home beautiful pictures 🙂

National Cherry Blossom Explorer

With my biggest ride of the year so far, I am now up to 44 months of at least one century ride (160+ km) per month.

Last April I for the first time managed to complete a 400 km brevet under the 27 hour time limit. It was 2015BRM418, a 400 km loop around Mt Fuji with AJ NishiTokyo (BRM418西東京400km富士大回り). I think it greatly helped that two weeks before the event I pre-rode the course at my own pace. Having done the same course on a rainy Easter weekend made the actual event seem a lot less intimidating than it would have been otherwise.

In the process I got to see a lot of beautiful cherry blossoms across four prefectures of Japan (Tokyo, Kanagawa, Yamanashi and Shizuoka). So I thought, I’m signed up for this year’s AJ NishiTokyo 400 km and it’s this time of the year, why not do the same crazy thing again? 🙂

A few things were different though:

1) I decided not to do the full 400 km brevet route plus almost another 60 km to get to the start and home again from the finish. I cut out about 50 km in the middle (PC1 to PC2 and back to where the courses passes near PC1 again), getting me closer to 400 km instead of last year’s 460 km mammoth ride.

2) I didn’t start to prepare for the ride until a little before midnight on Friday. I originally wanted to ride from Sunday to Monday, but then had to move it up a day. Consequently I only slept a bit over 5 hours before the ride, which is not good. I ended up getting very sleepy, more about that later.

3) On the upside, it didn’t rain, which helped. I still wore my rain gear, but only for the cold at times.

4) I did the ride on my new bike, the Elephant Bikes National Forest Explorer, on which I had already completed 200 km and 300 km brevets in February and March. I don’t have a rinko bag for the Elephant NFE, so aborting the ride and taking the train home like I did after my DNF (Did Not Finish) in 2014 was not an option, as it would have been with my folding road bike, the Bike Friday Pocket Rocket.

I left home around 07:30 and cycled to the starting point in Machida 28 km from here. From there I followed the course through Sagamihara to Doshi road, up a mountain valley towards Lake Yamanakako near Mt Fuji.

While the cherry blossoms were well past their prime down in the Kanto plain, the higher up I got the fresher or even immature they still looked.

Before I reached Doshi village they seemed to be in full bloom (“mankai” in Japanese).

I stopped for coffee and cake at the Doshi Road Station (どうし道の駅, Doshi Michi no Eki).

At the top of valley, on the final climb to the pass the cherry trees either had no blossoms at all yet or just a few blossoms with the rest of the branch still as buds.

It was markedly cooler once I got out of the tunnel before the descent to the lake. Soon I saw my first views of a big Mt Fuji. I was lucky and it was mostly unobscured. I stopped for pictures several times, on the way to the lake and then on the bike path along the lake shore.

From the west side of Lake Yamanakako I joined major Rt138/139 that would take me to Lake Motosuko. I had some food at a convenience store and put on more clothes again. Rt139 near Fujiyoshida and Kawaguchiko is not only busy but also very rough and really could do with resurfacing, but at least the wide tyres of the NFE took the edge off the bone-rattling ride of the crumbling, patched-up and pot-holed asphalt.

I passed many cars as the road went downhill towards Kawaguchiko, then it started climbing again towards Lake Saiko, before finally descending again near Lake Motosuko.

By the time I reached the turn-off to Motosuko, the sun hat set and it was rapidly getting dark. I took a few more pictures at the deserted lake in the fading evening light before entering the tunnel. On the steep descent on Rt300 I kept the speed down, not wanting to take any chances misjudging a corner in the darkness. Finally I got to the turn-off to another climb and tunnel over to an adjacent valley. From there the route went downhill again all the way to PC1.

Looking at my time, I decided to cross the Fujikawa river here and head down Rt52 after a food stop. Traffic wasn’t too bad. Eventually the course crossed over to the left bank of the river again, where Rt300 joins Rt52. It followed the Minobu railway line down to Shibakawa. I remembered this part of the route as more hilly from last year’s ride than I experienced it on this ride. From PC3 it wasn’t that far from the coast in Fuji city, but I started yawning more and more. I was about 200 km from home by then.

I was very glad to cross the Fujikawa river and turn east, towards Mishima. I did OK on the urban stretch along the coast and until I entered Izu. The closer I go to Shuzenji, the more I felt the night time cold and the tiredness. When I finally arrived at PC4 in Shuzenji in the interior of Izu around 05:00, I got a cup of coffee and took a one hour nap outside, leaning against a wall.

After I woke up again, I got back on the bike and started climbing Rt12 to the pass over to Ito. The sun was up by then and I enjoyed the early morning views.

The cherry blossoms around there were beautiful.

The long descent down to the coast in Ito gave me some recovery time, but there were still another four climbs over the next 30 km to Odawara, until the coastal road finally flattened out. Near the fake Atami castle I found some trees with piles of dry leaves underneath, which invited me to lie down again.

I used my rain gear bag as a pillow and rested on a futon of dried leaves, only metres from the busy coastal road and its weekend traffic. An hour later I woke up again, refreshed enough to ride home.

In Odawara I stopped for cherry blossom pictures at the castle moat.

Near Hiratsuka I turned off the brevet course to seek the shortest possible route home. While Rt45 was indeed much shorter than the randonnee route, it was also quite hilly, especially the half closer to Tokyo and it was not a nice road, with lots of cars. In the end it even merges into Rt246, probably my least favourite cycling road in Kanagawa prefecture. Still, it got me home before 17:00 on Sunday afternoon. My wife was glad to see me return safely and that’s always a good thing 🙂

I probably would have enjoyed the ride more if I hadn’t started with the ambition of staying close to brevet speeds. I would have slept earlier and longer and would have had more fun on the last part. Still, I ended up with close to 400 km and 3800 m of elevation gain with many, many beautiful views. The night time part of the ride would have been easier with warmer clothes too. I was over-estimating how warm it would stay after dark.

I am seriously considering trying the Bike Friday again for the brevet ride. It would make it easier to cut the ride short and take the train home, should I lose the battle against sleep. I love both my National Forest Explorer and my Bike Friday, one for its comfort, the other for its versatility. They are both great bikes and Japan is a great country to ride them in.

BRM227 NishiTokyo 200 in Izu on the Elephant NFE

BRM227 NishiTokyo 200 km “Shiokatsuo” (BRM227西東京200kmしおかつお下賀茂コース) on 2016-02-27 was my first brevet of the new year and also the first on my new bicycle, the Elephant Bikes National Forest Explorer (Elephant NFE).

Having cycled relatively little in January and February I was worried about my fitness level. Also, since building up the NFE from a frame+fork set at the beginning of the month I hadn’t put much distance on it yet. Until the day before the ride I was still undecided whether to go back to my proven Bike Friday (BF), on which I have done about 35,000 km so far or go for it on the new bike.

I had done similar brevets on the west coast of Izu peninsula with AJ NishiTokyo in 2013 and 2014. For 2016, a choice of the either the 2013 (Shimogamo) or 2014 (Matsuzaki) route was offered. I went for the Shimogamo route, even though it’s supposed to have about 400 m more elevation gain. The Matsuzaki course (which I may try again next year) doesn’t reach down as far south and contains more out-and-back stretches instead of loops.

I had reserved a room at the Tokoyo Inn at Mishima station, across the street from the event start, so I wouldn’t have to drive two hours before the event.

On Friday I visited Tim at GS Astuto to have the spokes of the wheels he built for the NFE retensioned after 275 km of running in period. Tim helpfully also adjusted my disk brakes and tightened up my left crank which got rid of clicking noises while pedaling. That gave me the confidence to go for the NFE for the event. Thank you, Tim! 🙂

On Saturday morning I was up early, checking the view outside. The sky looked completely clear. I changed into my cycling gear, grabbed a cup of coffee and some bread rolls at the hotel breakfast buffet and headed over to the coin parking where I had left the NFE in the back of the Prius.

A few minutes later I rolled up to the start in front of Mishima station. The new bike got a lot of attention from fellow randonneurs. You don’t actually see a lot of “randonneur” bikes at Japanese randoneuring events and the combination of modern disc brakes with old school Honjo fenders and a Brooks saddle made the elephant an even rarer beast.

After the course briefing we pushed the bikes to the opposite end of the station for the safety check (lights, bell, reflective vest? Check!) and off we went.

The initial speed was even more moderate than usual at brevet starts. A large group of us hung together on the mostly flat 30 km or so until the first (untimed) check point. I saw my first views of Mt Fuji but didn’t want to stop for pictures to stay with the group.

At the 7-Eleven I took off my winter jacket and the full fingered gloves. I did not need to put either back on for the rest of the ride, as I was always warm enough. I put the jacket into a plastic bag and strapped it to the back of the saddle. We were about 25 minutes ahead of minimum speed.

From here the road climbed for a couple of km to a mountain pass, followed by a long and fast descent to Toi onsen on the coast. I felt much more confident descending at high speed than I would have been on the Bike Friday. The wider Compass Babyshoe Pass EL tyres provide so much traction and absorb most road bumps effortlessly.

At the coast we got some Fuji views and I stopped for some pictures. On the way down to Matsuzaki the road passed through numerous tunnels and over many climbs and descents. The tunnels interrupted GPS reception and since I don’t have a wheel speed sensor installed yet, my displayed km count started falling further and further behind actual distance covered. I knew Strava would fill in the gaps on uploads, but I had to guess by how much to adjust the current number to estimate how far it was to the next control.

The area around Dogashima is particularly picturesque.

I was glad it didn’t get quite as warm as when I rode it in 2014. With my warm underwear I still sweated on the climbs, but I didn’t get quite as as dehydrated as then.

After Matsuzaki the course turned away from the coast to avoid the picturesque but narrow and busy coastal road around Iwachi onsen. We climbed up a very steep and narrow backroad, past some farmhouses and Shitake mushroom plantations in the woods.

I rode alone most of the time, but came across the same fellow cyclists over and over as we all stopped at different times to get food, take pictures or for physiological breaks.

I was making good progress and felt increasingly confident about how I’d do in the brevet. By the time I got close to PC1 almost 100 km from the start and only about 15 km short of Shimoda on the southern tip of the peninsula, I was about 45 minutes ahead of minimum speed.

Still, I kept all stops as short as possible and didn’t even allow myself any hot coffee, which takes too long to sip. My choice of drink was mostly chocolate milk, along with my staple food of bananas.

The loop at the southern end of the course had been reversed from the first time I rode the Shimogamo course, to reduce the need to cycle into a coastal headwind.

As I headed back up to Matsuzaki it was not as clear any more as in the morning. I ended up not seeing any more Fuji views in the afternoon, even in the northwestern corner of the peninsula. The sun was getting low as I passed through Dogashima again, then through Toi, where I stocked up on food at the last convenience stores before the sparsely populated NW corner.

Compared to my earlier rides I was feeling a lot less fatigued, even though the NFE is no lighter than the Bike Friday.

Much of the last 40 km before PC2 was very windy, with strong gusts gripping the bikes, but the NFE with its low trail fork is not very sensitive to that (same for the BF) and I felt safe at all times. The low trail fork also makes it easier to make quick corrections to avoid pot holes, sewer covers, etc.

Darkness fell and we descended from the last big hill at the NW corner. I followed close behind another rider, with the Lumotec dynamo light flooding the road with light. We kept a pretty good pace for the next 15 km and rolled up to the Ministop at the edge of civilization at almost the same time. I was about 50 minutes ahead of cutoff time, with only 13 km to go. In a 200 km brevet you gain an extra 10 minutes of time after the last PC: The cut-off time for all PCs is based on their distance from the start divided by 15 km/h, but the overall limit is 13 1/2 hours, not 13 1/3 hours as it would be with a strict 15 km/h minimum speed. So basically I had 2 hours to cover the final 13 km — I could take it easy for the urban ride back to Mishima.

When I finally did buy a cup of coffee at the 7-Eleven near Mishima station that served as the goal, it was 20:00, exactly an hour from course closing time: My first NFE brevet was my fastest Izu brevet ever. And somehow I had still managed to take 101 photographs since the morning 🙂

While I enjoyed my coffee, a few fellow riders rolled up to the conbini. After they had also bought food and drinks and kept the receipts, we cycled back to the Toyoko Inn together, 3 km from the goal, where the reception desk was for the receipt check to confirm we had properly completed the ride.

I really had a great day. I had started the ride still worried if this might be the first ever 200 km brevet that I might not finish under the time limit, but instead I improved my best time and felt great doing so. The cooler temperatures definitely helped, but so did the comfortable ride of the NFE.

I am looking forward to my next brevet, BRM326 NishiTokyo 300 km Mt Fuji, on the same course around Mt Fuji that had served as a my first introduction to randonneuring in May 2012. Meanwhile I still love my Bike Friday and enjoy every km I ride on it. For courses involving train trips it probably will still be my #1 choice, as it’s easier to pack into a small package and it is still my go-to bike for rides around town.

Tomin no worries

“It’s going to rain on Saturday,” somebody on the adjacent table mentioned. “Oh really? I’ve been looking forward to rain for weeks, to be able to test my disc brakes!” I blurted out and the room suddenly went silent. Everybody was giving me a look that made it perfectly clear that this wasn’t the sort of comment that will win you popularity contests at a monthly bike meeting.

But it was true. The lack of reliable braking in the rain was the main reason why I had swapped the cantilever brake on the front fork of my Bike Friday for a disc brake (after upgrading to a new fork). Since then I hadn’t had the chance to test the new brake under the atrocious conditions I had wanted it for. I finally wanted to know how much difference the new brake would make.

So when the rainy forecast for Saturday remained unchanged by Friday afternoon, I announced to my wife that I was going to do a rainy ride the next day. The forecast was for light rain in the morning and heavier rain in the afternoon and evening, with 12 mm falling during daytime. Temperatures were supposed to be in the 12-16 C range.

“I’ll do the ride because I can,” I told my wife. I don’t ride in the rain because it was so much fun (usually it isn’t, even though atmospheric views and the resulting pictures often make up for some of the inconveniences), but because I don’t want to let the weather scare me. A lot of aspects of randonneuring can be intimidating, such as the distances or the amount of climbing or riding at night or sleep deprivation on 20+ hour rides. Much of the challenge of randonneuring is mental, i.e. having the confidence that you can do the ride despite all the challenges. The only way to build and maintain that confidence is to keep doing challenging rides.

When I sign up for brevet rides, I don’t know in advance what the weather will be like on the day. If it rains, I’ll still show up for the ride — it’s only water 😉

This year on the Easter weekend I had done a 400 km two day ride by myself in near constant drizzle for much of the ride. The year before I had done a 300 km brevet around Mt Fuji, with rain for the first 150 km.

I own two different rain jackets, a pair of nylon pants and various gloves. My friend Jose once told me, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes!” Over the years I have built some experience in how to deal with wet and cold weather on bike rides.

My goal was Tomin no mori (“Tokyo citizens’ forest”), a hiking trail head in the mountains west of Musashiitsukaichi station. To me the the real gateway to cycling in the mountains in Japan is not Mt Takao on the western edge of Tokyo but Tomin no mori. It’s not the steepest route, at up to 8-10 % on the steeper part of the final 10 km, but at 26 km from the station it is long and remote enough to test you and at about 1000 m elevation high enough for the temperatures to significantly change from below. If you have made this climb, you will be ready for any surfaced mountain road anywhere in Japan.

I started the ride around 08:00 wearing my rain jacket. After a while I could feel my knees getting colder and wetter from the drizzle, so I put on my nylon pants. On the way to Musashiitsukaichi (49 km from home) I stopped twice for coffee and food. After another break at a Familymart I headed up the mountain valley.

Normally the road to Tomin no mori is popular with cyclists, motorcyclists and boy racers in souped-up cars, especially on the weekend. Almost every time I cycle up there I come across the sound of an ambulance or police car rushing to an accident site. This weekend was different. I didn’t see any other bicycles or motorbikes. A guard at some road works told me he had seen maybe four other bicycles the whole day.

I loved the momiji (Japanese maple) leaves in green, yellow and red and the steaming clouds hanging over the forests.

Three km from the top I passed a water fall. Even though the temperature was dropping, I felt warmer and warmer as I was working hard on the climb. I knew the descent would be much colder.

Finally I reached the entrance to the trail head. I parked the bicycle and ordered sansai (mountain vegetable) pizza with coffee.

The rain had picked up while I had my meal, just as predicted by the forecast for the later afternoon and evening.

When I started the ride, I had considered three route options: 1) to Tomin no mori and back down again. 2) to Kazahari toge, the pass a few km above Tomin no mori and back and 3) over the pass and down to Lake Okutama, then downhill to Oume and down the Tamagawa for maximum distance. As I headed out I quickly decided that 1) was the only sensible option, given the real risk of hypothermia with my rain soaked shoes, gloves and sweaty clothes under the rain gear. I wasn’t even wearing a long sleeved jersey under my jacket and had brought no extra layers or dry clothes to change into.

The first 10 km of descending down towards Musashiitsukaichi were the coldest because it was so steep, I couldn’t really pedal to generate heat. After the route flattened out a bit I could work more and the chill eased off, though with wet feet and gloves it never became all that warm.

The disc brake was OK but had too much travel. I found the brake levers hit the drops before the brake was fully engaged. What had happened was that during the previous weeks I had done several mountain rides which had worn the pads and I had not readjusted the brakes to compensate. It was only when I got back to the Familymart that I got out my Allen keys and adjusted the inner pad to remove the excess play in the system that the brake started working as it should. I wish I had done that before the ride.

I had one nasty experience about 15 km from home: At one level crossing the road crossed the rails not at a right angle but diagonally and just as I was wondering how the gap would play with my tyres, the wheels went out under me as they slipped on the wet steel. I landed hard on my left knee and elbow. Though my rain jacket was OK, my nylon pants were torn at the knee and I had some abrasions on my skin. Next time I have to cross rails like that in the rain, I’ll walk the bike…

I got home without further incident after 150 km with 1200 m of elevation gain in the rain.

Next time I’ll do a ride like this I’ll bring along an extra layer for the cold descent and maybe a pair of dry socks and gloves as well. I’ll treat wet railway crossings with even more respect than metal sewer lids and any metal grates, because all of them are accidents waiting to happen.

I managed to keep my phone dry with a plastic cover, protected my camera in my breast pocket and kept the spare battery and USB cable for recharging the GPS out of the rain with strategically placed plastic bags.

I am still looking for a good way to keep my feet dry in the rain. I tried Bicycle Line shoe covers, but the largest size available was too small for my shoe size.

Also I need to figure out why despite mudguards at the front and the rear I end up with dirt water being sprayed onto the seat post bag and my back. Really, I need to find myself a better pair of mudguards, but there isn’t much choice for the 20 inch ETRTO 451 wheels of my Bike Friday Pocket Rocket.

Despite the accident and notwithstanding the coldest part of the descent, I wasn’t too uncomfortable for most of the ride and am glad to have seen the autumn foliage views around Hinohara village.

The last brevet of the season

BRM926 AJ NishiTokyo 200 km Kintaro on September 26 was the last brevet of the year for me, even though the Japanese Randonneuring season runs until October: I won’t able to attend AJ NishiTokyo’s West Izu brevet on October 17 due to business travel.

I had not prepared particularly well for BRM926. After a heat wave in early August we had lots of rain, then one of my brothers visited from Germany, then I traveled to the US again. I did not really get to do as much cycling as usual. So far I had not experienced any DNF (Did Not Finish) on any of my 200 km brevets, but I was a bit worried that this could be the first time on this very hilly course.

I got up at 03:45. In the front car of the first train heading out to Machida I met two other participants. In front of the station I unpacked the bike in the rain and rode out to the start (5 km) with one of the other guys. On the way the rain stopped and I took off and packed away my rain gear before the ride briefing. A week before the event, the weather forecast had predicted rain, but as the week progressed it gradually improved.

The day started off cool and never got too hot, but mostly staid dry. Around higher elevations, especially after going over a pass or through a tunnel through a mountain range we encountered slight drizzle again (really, we were just riding through clouds). The strongest was crossing from the Yamanakako side of Kagosaka Toge to the Gotemba side. But the drizzle always stopped when elevation dropped and we got out of the clouds again.

The course had three convenience store check points (point de contrôle, PC) roughly 60 km apart, as well as one quiz point and one manned but untimed check point. It headed from Machida via route 35/Akiyama to Tsuru and from there up to Kawaguchiko. After circling the lake it headed past Yamanako, over to the Ashigara mountains to a barbecue site called Yuhi no Taki (evening light waterfall) and back to Machida.

After the Akiyama road with the first big climb near the Maglev track I reached PC1 at Tsuru with only about 15 minutes spare before control closing time. That set the tone for the day.

I was continually chasing the next closing time, thinking I’d probably make it but could never be too sure until I reached it. At the top of a mountain I would always find myself behind the minimum average speed of 15 km/h from the start, but on the next descent I’d gain just enough distance in a short time that I was a little bit ahead of the minimum at the next PC again. Most of the time I cycled alone, but I came across the same three or four cyclists again and again.

At Lake Kawaguchiko I couldn’t see Mt Fuji because it was too cloudy. Given the forecast, I hadn’t expected to see it.

The highest point was Kagosaka Toge, about 1100 m. From there the road dropped over 700 m, which is a pretty long descent. PC2 at the bottom was a grocery store, where I arrived just 12 minutes before control closing time. I bought bananas and climbed up Ashigara Toge (6 km).

On the other side I descended 6 km, then climbed a valley to a barbecue place which was a manned checkpoint (untimed). Staff had prepared grilled seafood and meat. They had saved some Frankfurter sausage and chicken for me, which I ate only 13 minutes before they had to clear out of the place. Then I descended to Oi-Matsuda and across a mix of rolling hills and busy urban roads back to Machida.

PC3 felt like the biggest challenge as traffic and traffic lights got denser, with the hills still unrelenting. I arrived at PC3 with 14 minutes spare. Two other cyclists arrived 3 and 5 minutes later, as I was preparing to head off again. Due to the overall 200 km time limit being 10 minutes longer than the 15 km/h equivalent time limit of all intermediate controls, I gained more breathing space at the final PC and could take it relatively easy for the remaining 26 km, which had yet more hills and traffic. It was then that I could stop worrying about time. I arrived at the goal 20 minutes before control closing time, with the other two guys following soon.

From there it was an untimed 5 km back to the reception site, the Cherubim bike shop in Machida. Three cyclists behind me also completed. Quite a few others DNF’ed (dropped out) due to various problems, including mechanical problems (a broken front derailleur, a ripped off rear derailleur after a crash, etc). We relaxed, celebrated and talked.

After the AJ NishiTokyo staff tidied up we took a group picture. I then cycled home from Cherubim to Setagaya. I got back at 23:30 with 242 km recorded on Strava and close to 2900 m of climbing, including the return ride.

The next day I felt a bit sore, but not too bad. The adrenaline of an event lets you do amazing things. My brevet speeds are always significantly higher than my personal ride times because there is always a ticking clock and/or other riders to chase. Knowing I can achieve goals in brevets that I don’t normally achieve on my own encourages me to become more ambitious and aim higher.

400 km in 26 hours on a Bike Friday

On April 18/19 I rode the BRM418 Fuji Omawari (“Fuji Big Loop”) 400 km brevet by AJ NishiTokyo. It was part of my quest to complete 200-300-400-600 km brevets in one year for the Super Randonneur title. Those four are also needed to qualify for Paris-Brest-Paris this August, which I’m not seriously planning for.

The course had a 27 hour time limit, from 07:00 on Saturday to 10:00 on Sunday. The total elevation gain of the course is about 3700 m over an official distance of 402.4 km. There were five check points (PC1-5, point de contrôle), all of them convenience stores from which we needed to get receipts, plus one quiz check point halfway to PC1.

As for most AJ NishiTokyo events the start and finish were at the Cherubim bike shop in Machida. From there the course heads out via Doshi michi (Rt413) to Yamanako (Lake Yamanaka), past Motosuko (Lake Motosu) to Minami Alps city, then down to the coast, across Izu to Ito, Atami, Odawara and back to Machida.

Though it might look like most of the climbing was in the first quarter because of the highest elevation there, there is more total elevation gain yet to come after the big descent from the Fuji five lake area.

I had tried this event last year but around the half-way point started to fade badly from lack of sleep . There was no way I could make the remaining control closing times. Even after sleeping some time I decided not to cycle all the way back but to take the train from Odawara station, so I didn’t even do the full distance.

To prevent a repeat of this outcome I decided to:
1) get more sleep upfront and
2) not to bring a rinko bag on the ride 🙂

I also rode the complete course as a personal ride without time limit two weeks before the event, Tokyo to Tokyo (460+ km total). This gave me a better feel for the course, for how my body would react and what clothes would be appropriate this season. And it worked!

On Friday night I checked into a cheap hotel near Machida so I would have a quiet early night and wouldn’t have to take the bike on the first train in the morning to make it to the registration desk by 06:00, before the briefing at 06:30. At 5000 yen the hotel was cheap, but the supposedly non-smoking room reeked of cigarette smoke. It was hot and stuffy too, so I woke up several times. Unfortunately the similarly priced but much nicer Toyoko Inn in Sagamihara where I had staid before BRM110 in January was full…

Saturday morning started out sunny, but I had packed my rain gear in case of rain on Sunday and as an extra layer if it got too cold at night. I never needed it during the ride: A wind breaker was enough for the cold and it didn’t start drizzling until Sunday afternoon.

On the way to the start I bought some bananas for breakfast. At the briefing we were told about some course changes in the latest version of the cue sheet, then a safety check and we were off. I think I was the only one at the start without leg warmers.

Doshi michi has a lot of ups and downs before it reaches the 1114 m pass before Yamanakako, so you actually climb something like 1700 m up to that point and we also faced head winds. I think I was passed by almost all participants by the time I reached the lake.

Unlike at the ride two weeks earlier Fuji was visible this time.

I was wearing my shorts and no wind breaker. For that it was chilly, especially at Motosuko which was covered in low clouds with only 7 degrees C according to a road side display. The coldest point of the ride was not before sunrise in Izu but at noon at Motosuko.

Due to the amount of climbing I was running about 20 minutes behind the minimum average speed for PC closing times by then. Not coincidentally though, PC1 had been placed after a long fast descent at much lower elevation, so we could make up a lot of lost time. It was extremely windy on the steep Rt300 descent the other side of the Motosuko tunnel, but temperatures also got much milder again.

I made it to PC1 (a Seven 11 at 125 km) 20 minutes before closing time, then on to PC2 (a Lawson) in Minami Alps at 152 km, also with only 20 minutes spare.

After PC2 came a long downhill stretch, which was great for recovery. The Yamanashi side of Mt Fuji staid in full view for a long time.

As the sun set we joined Rt52 towards the coast, a fast flat road with a fair amount of traffic.

I passed a few other cyclists before we got to the hilly section leading to PC3 (a Circle K at Shibakawa, 217 km). This is where it started to get difficult last year, but not this time: After riding this section in the rain after midnight two weeks earlier, it felt downright comfortable in evening hours in the dry.

I was wondering where I would get really sleepy. I didn’t think I was so well prepared after that hotel stay, but my pace didn’t drop. At the Ministop that served as PC4 in Izu (km 275) I found myself an hour ahead of closing time. Several others took a nap at the conbini. I was too excited to nap and had a cup of coffee instead.

In the dark on the pass over to the east coast of Izu I startled a small deer and later some racoon-like animal, but nothing scary.

There are four climbs on the coastal road before Odawara, each one several km long. I didn’t take any pictures in the early dawn. It was cool and overcast, not clear and warm as when I passed there last year:

Near Atami I stopped for my third cup of coffee at a conbini as I was feeling sleepy, when an accident happened outside. A group of Randonneurs who were part of a different event had passed and one of them had his front wheel caught in a gap in a sewer grate. He had landed head first on the road, cracked his helmet and probably broke his nose. When I got there he was lying flat on his back on the side walk, with a handkerchief covering his face, not moving but conscious. There was blood on the road. His friends had called an ambulance which soon arrived. The other cyclists then asked us to continue. That situation kind of woke me up again. Ours is a dangerous sport indeed! Drafting in a group does have aerodynamic benefits, but only the lead man gets an unobstructed view of the road ahead.

I made it to the last big climb before Odawara as the sun came up and knew I was looking good on time. There were several other randonneurs that I kept seeing as we stopped at different times but were basically at a similar pace. At PC5 (366 km) I knew I could make it to Machida even if I only averaged 15 km/h, with only 36 km and no real hills to go in light Sunday morning traffic.

“You’re riding 400 km on THAT?” asked a female cyclist, pointing at my Bike Friday as I was having milk tea and sandwiches outside the last conbini. The people who see me regularly at AJ NishiTokyo events are no longer surprised that I do these long distance rides on a road bike with small wheels that happens to fold, but many others still find it hard to believe you don’t have to pedal more. Thankfully somebody back in the 1880s invented something called the “safety bicycle” with gears and a chain, a novel design that broke the 1 pedal revolution = 1 wheel revolution link of the “ordinary bicycle” that had preceded it. So I can assure them that on a 400 km ride I don’t need to pedal any more than somebody riding the same event on a 700C bike and the relative position of the contact points (seat, pedals, handle bar) is the same too.

I got to Machida with a big grin on my face, rolling up in front of Cherubim at 09:01, 59 minutes before the 10:00 closing time. I had my brevet card checked, showed my receipts and the quiz point photograph, then sat down for refreshments and a chat. More cyclists arrived, one or two at a time. The very last one still on the course literally made it at the last minute, arriving at 09:59 to general cheers 🙂

My next brevet will be BRM530 to Suwako (Lake Suwa in Nagano) and back, a 600 km ride. Going without sleep for its entire 40 hour time limit won’t be an option there, but I’ll try to prepare well. I’ve cycled most of the route in 2013 and 2014 already.

A couple of days before the brevet I ordered N+1, an Elephant Bikes NFE frame set. It’s basically a low trail geometry randonneur bike with disc brakes. Production will start next month and I should receive it in August.

So this autumn I’ll probably be doing the “Kintaro” (Ashigara) and “Shiokatsuo” (West Izu) 200 km brevets on new 650B wheels with a dynamo hub and discs that Tim (GS Astuto) will be building for the new green bike.

A 242 km January bike ride

On January 10 I rode my first brevet of 2015, “BRM110 Miura peninsula 200 km” by AJ NishiTokyo. The 204 km course started and finished in Machida while the middle portion followed the Kanagawa coastline around Miura peninsula. Total elevation gain was a little over 900 m, far less than the more typical 2000-3000m in other AJ NishiTokyo 200 km events. It was also far less windy on the Miura coast than on most of my winter rides there. There were about 70 participants and I rode with others for most of the route.

The previous evening I cycled to a cheap business hotel near the start (Toyoko Inn in Fuchinobe) and went to bed early. I got up at 04:00, left at 05:00 and attended the pre-ride briefing at 05:40.

With the clear night sky, temperatures were close to freezing when we set off at 06:00, almost an hour before sunrise. The dawn was pretty along the Tamagawa, but when the sun rose it was right in our faces, which must have made it challenging for cars and trucks passing us.

After 40 km we left the river and turned onto major Rt15. We reached PC1 (Point de Controle #1, in this case a convenience store) at km 43. Here are some bikes of fellow participants, ranging from a custom built Japanese Cherubim bike with Rohloff Speedhub to a mamachari (shopping bike). Most cyclists at Japanese brevets ride regular carbon or aluminium frame road bikes.

My next stop was at Yamashita koen in Yokohama. From there to near the Yokosuka naval base the road has many traffic lights so even though it’s mostly flat, you can’t maintain a fast pace. The real scenic peninsula starts south of Yokosuka. I love the views across Tokyo bay to Boso peninsula on the opposite side. You can see many boats, from container ships to oil tankers to LNG tankers, on their way to and from Tokyo, Kawasaki and Yokohama.

After 119 km I reached PC2 in Misaki, where I got my brevet card signed by a staff member (at PC1 and PC3 we needed to collect shopping receipts).

Heading north from there towards Zushi and and Kamakura on the west coast of the peninsula I was treated to one stunning Mt Fuji view after another. January is really the best time for them, because the air is so dry. At other times of the year the mountain is often obscured by clouds, even if you could see far enough.

Here are some guys preparing a bonfire for a shrine festival:

Near Chigasaki we turned away from the coast and soon reached PC3 near Samukawa (km 168). I was told I was #38, so around the middle of the field. With only 36 km to go to the finish and 1 1/2 hours ahead of cut-off time I felt really good. Furthermore, I still had over an hour of daylight. I had worked really hard for the first three hours, then dropped the pace a bit but overall made good time. So I enjoyed my first cup of coffee of the day, then headed on.

Another participant decided to follow me and my GPS to save himself navigating by his paper maps and notes. Once we got closer to the finish and he found himself in familiar territory he decided to drop off the back while I continued at my pace. I arrived at the finish at 18:06, 12 hour and 6 minutes from the start, which is my best 200 km time ever.

After handing in my brevet card and having my receipts checked I hung out with other finishers with food and drinks, chatting for a while. Then I headed on, riding another 30 km back to Setagaya/Tokyo in the dark. My winter gloves turned out too cold from the sweat, so I stopped at another convenience store to defrost my hands and pick up some cheap knit gloves for the ride home. Strava reported a total of 242 km for the day.

That makes January my 29th consecutive month with at least one Century ride (160+ km).

Google Maps Engine brings back custom routes

Last year I stopped updating Google Maps on my Android phone because Google had dropped important functionality with Google Maps 7.x. Google Maps 6.x for Android was a great tool for following mapped routes on long bicycle rides, especially randonnes of 200 km and more. After an update I had to revert to Google Maps 6.x to get it back. This also meant I could no longer allow Android to install all available updates in one go. I always had to manually confirm all updates except Maps to not lose 6.x again.

Finally Google has brought this functionality back. There are still missing bits, but at least the product seems usable again for my purposes.

On Android there is an app called Google Maps Engine, which supports loading custom maps. Select “Open a map” in the menu. You’ll get a list of maps created by you or shared with you.

This menu can be populated from a desktop machine. There you can import existing maps created for Maps 6.x. Go to https://mapsengine.google.com/map/ and select “Open a map” (you need to be logged in to your Google account). Select “Classic My Maps”. You’ll be able to select one of your existing maps and import it in to Maps Engine. After that it will become available to the Google Maps Engine app on your Android and you can use it for navigation. The route will show as a blue line and special locations, such as my brevet PCs (“points de controle”, route check points) will show marked with a pin.

One drawback of Maps Engine on the Android compared to the old Google Maps 6.x is that it doesn’t seem to support displaying a ruler on a map yet. Thus when you zoom in or out you won’t be able to tell how far you are from any point you see on the map, whether one cm on the screen corresponds to 100 m or 10 km on the map. This is the same problem that Google Maps 7.x had when it was launched last year. Hopefully it will be fixed soon. Still, it is disconcerting that Google misses out such basic functionality when launching products. Are all their eyes on monetization these days?