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 🙂

The joy of six hundred (My first 600 km randonnée)

Sagamihara, Kanagawa prefecture. The GPS recording goes as far as Sagamihara. My bike is in Sagamihara. I fail to grasp what these statements have to do with me. They feel like answers in a TV quiz show that I am watching or something in a book I’m reading. I look at my gray rinko bag. Normally cylindrical in shape, my bike bag for train rides is squashed slightly flat. That’s because I used it as a pillow when lying down on the asphalt of the parking lot on which I am now sitting. The smartphone on my bike handle bar makes that sound alerting me that a message has just arrived. I get up and check it. “Are you OK?” It’s from my son. It’s night time and I am not sure how long I have been napping, but I am feeling a little better than I did before I slept. “I took a nap. I am in Sagamihara,” I write back.

Ah yes, I’m on this long bike ride. Gradually all the pieces fall into place in my brain. I was getting really sleepy riding back towards Tokyo on Doshi michi (Doshi road, Rt413), a rural mountain road from Yamanakako (Lake Yamanaka) to Sagamihara, so I decided to take a nap. I have done over 500 km already. Now it’s after 23:00. From here I still have three hours to go to get home. At least three hours! I get on my bike again and ride on.

How did I get there?

It all started in May, when I did the 300 km Fuji randonée (brevet ride) with AJ NishiTokyo. At the finish the organisers mentioned an event they were planning for September, their first 600 km ride ever. Individually, many had done 600 km rides and even 1200 km such as Paris-Brest-Paris, but the club had only ever organized 200, 300 and 400 km events. A full “super randonneur” (SR) series consists of rides of 200, 300, 400 and 600 km. Before putting on an official event open to the general public, they were planning to do a test run, like a dress rehearsal, for Audax Japan members only.

I didn’t get around to do the 400 km event in June, but riding to and from the 300 km event in May I had done a total of 360 km that time, so I felt this wasn’t too different. 600 km was the next step up. Scheduled for September 21/22, the event was labelled “BRMpre” as it wasn’t an official “Brevet des Randonneurs Mondiaux” event, only in preparation for one, though it was run under the same rules regarding time limits, safety precautions, etc.

In the following months I increased the number and difficulty of my weekend rides, increasing my monthly distance. When the signup for BRMpre-921 opened on the web in August I went ahead and signed up with my credit card. Next I told everyone, so I’d have to live up to the challenge. Eventually I even told my wife 😉

Preparing for the event

On August 11 I was going to do a 280 km run including the first 130 km and the last 70 km of the course, but my rear shifter cable broke less than a km from home and I had to turn back. The following weekend I went for it again, with a new shifter cable installed. It was a sizzling hot August weekend and by the time I got to the convenience store down in Izu which was going to serve as PC1 (point de contrôle 1, check point 1), I was already 1 hour behind the minimum average pace of 15 km/h. I headed on another 20 km to a train station, took a train from there to Machida station and cycled the last 30 km home.

My expectation was that I would probably run up against the time limit at one of the 7 PCs or at the finish, but I wanted to go the whole distance if possible. I did many shorter rides working on my speed, from fast 25 km rides to Shinjuku and back to 120 km double-crossings of Wada summit near Hachioji. I wasn’t sure it was going to be enough, but it should help.

After a last hard weekend a week before the event, I took it easy, just allowing my body to recover. My friend Richard who lives near the event start at Machida generously offered to let me stay over night at his place, so I could easily get to the reception for receiving the brevet card, the safety check and the ride briefing before the 05:00 start, before any trains run. I went to bed at 20:00, setting my alarm for 03:00. At 04:00 I left Richard’s apartment and headed into my adventure.

Machida to Izu

A group of 13 riders had turned up for the ride, several of them seasoned veterans who had done other 600 km, 1000 km and 1200 km rides, including Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP, 1200 km). We handed in our consent form and received our brevet cards. At around 04:45 we had our bikes checked for compliance. Two lights were needed at the rear and two at the front, as well as a reflective vest and the legally required bicycle bell. Then we were sent off into the moonlit night.

For the first couple of km the pace is always moderate as people just warm up. Once we turned into the major road leading south towards the coast, the pace picked up a bit. I found myself following behind two faster riders, mostly doing 31-33 km/h on the flat in between traffic light stops, with a couple of people behind me. It wasn’t too hard to keep the pace drafting behind them. I did keep an eye on the heart rate monitor readout of the Garmin Edge 500.

After 20 km, both riders got ahead at lights and I now found myself at the front of a group of 5 people. I kept the pace between 28 and 32 km/h, with up to 37-40 km on downhill stretches. Navigation wasn’t too difficult. There were only a few turns that I checked on Google Maps and I had used the same route on other brevets and personal rides before. Saturday morning traffic was lively as the sun rose into a cloudless sky. I felt we were drafting off all the trucks and cars heading towards the coast with us. We hit the ocean at Enoshima and turned onto the coastal road.

Soon we got to the first stop, a public toilet where I filled up both my water bottles. This was an un-timed quiz checkpoint. We had to write down the price of the most expensive item at one vending machine, as evidence we had passed through. For all seven check points (PC1-PC7) we had to buy an item (such as food) and keep the cash register receipt, which has the time and date of the purchase printed on it.

It got warmer as the sun rose higher, from 19 C at the start to 31 C by the time we were in Izu. I drank to thirst. When I think I have ridden another half an hour or so, I have another banana from my jersey pockets. When I’m out of them I stop at another convenience store, refill my water bottles from the tap and and buy another bunch of bananas again. I put 2-3 each in the left and middle jersey pockets. Every now an then I get VanHouten cocoa. Sometimes I got onigiri (rice balls wrapped in sea weed) or yoghurt or some bread, but primarily I ran on bananas.

By the time we were in Numazu, Shizuoka the heat and the early start took its toll. I caught up with riders who had passed me on the climbs between Ito and Mishima. A short pace line formed between 4 of us as we rode west on the coastal road, including the couple who had done PBP before, who I had also met at the Izu brevets (BRM309) and the Kintaro brevet (BRM413). I followed them for a while, then they dropped back and I took the pull. Until we hit more traffic lights near Fuji river we were cruising at around 30 km/h. We rode together until we reached PC2. After the break they were determined to stay with me because we made such good progress. We were over 2 hours ahead of the minimum pace.

I had expected to be left behind by most riders before Enoshima and to struggle to make the cut-off time at PC1 like in my personal ride, but the combination of the slightly lower temperatures, the ease of higher speeds in a pace line and the effects of recent training was totally unexpected for me. We set off together again as we headed up Fuji river towards PC4. At some point the couple told me to go ahead. Later I saw them again as I came out of a Daily Yamazaki store with a new bunch of bananas. They stopped there for a nap, as their 02:30 start caught up with them. We didn’t meet again until near Chino.

Fuji river looked wild and muddy, fed by streams from the nearby Minami Alps. We rode through farmland and villages, where farmers were busy with the rice harvest.

Night time

After 240 km from Machida I was 3 hours and 9 minutes ahead of the minimum pace. After sunset I arrived at PC3, 260 km from Machida. I sat down in the camping chair offered to me by the event leader and we talked while I ate some food. He told me from here it would be quite hilly, on Rt17. It would be tough from here to the lake. Knowing how much of a time buffer I had, this didn’t scare me too much.

In his opinion, the most difficult part would be the mostly downhill ride on Rt20 in Yamanashi on the way to PC5, during the second half of the brevet. He explained that it would be in the early hours of the morning when riders get sleepy and it’s the coldest. The combination of the wind and not having to pedal chills you and it makes you even more sleepy. Ooops! I had bought leg warmers and brought a wind breaker and even the set of non-cycling underwear that I had used as pyjamas at Richard’s place, so I hoped I would be all right.

He didn’t promise too much. The climbs started soon. It reminded me of the long uphill route from Odawara to Gotemba that runs in parallel to Rt246, that I knew from the Fuji brevet. I was slow, but 3 hours of time buffer is very comforting. The route wasn’t all uphill, numerous times it descended again, only to have to regain the altitude again. I put on my leg warmers and wind breaker to deal with the cold. I could see stars and at this altitude the temperature dropped rapidly. It was just me and my bike cycling past nightly fields and trees, with the occasional car or truck passing on the otherwise deserted back road. I was passed by a few other cyclists.

It seemed to take forever to get closer to Chino. I started yawning and feeling the chill. Even when I was past the worst climbing, near the lake my speed had dropped from the sleepiness and the cold. I met the couple again and they told me they were ending their ride here, checking into a hotel at Chino without going to PC4. DNF (Did not finish). I headed on towards the lake. It is about 700 m above sea level, surrounded by high mountains. Nearby Yatsugatake is popular for skiing in the winter.

I had been hoping for 24 hour restaurants such as McDonald’s to warm up and take a short nap but there were none. Finally I stopped the bike next to a metal bench, because it was the closest thing to a bed I could find. I used the rinko bag as a pillow and passed out almost immediately after I lay down. It was only about 14 C.

When I woke up again, I checked the map. I still had about 10 km to PC4 and it was around midnight. Finally I got to a busier part of the lake shore, with fast food places, but by then I was close to PC4. When I got there, the organiser was waiting outside the convenience store in his thermal clothes. Apparently, except for people who had phoned in to announce their DNF, there was no one behind me. I was still over two hours ahead of the pace, but it was 80 km to PC5, quite a bit of it chilly downhill and over 5 hours until sunrise. I would suffer hypothermia and sleep deprivation all the way. This was no way to continue. I announced my DNF. Meanwhile he had 7 hours to get some sleep and get to PC7, where the faster riders would be arriving later on.

“There are no trains now. You can get together with O.-san over there and wait until the morning at a Mac,” he helpfully explained. He woke his colleague who was sleeping in the car and then introduced me to O.-san, who had also DNFed. He rode a brand new Cherubim bike and was a software developer like me. We headed back about 3 km to the nearest 24 hour McDonald’s, ordered some food and coffee and settled in for the night. He was going to rinko back to Tokyo on one of the first trains, while my plan was to continue on the original route once it got warmer. Then I would head for a train station somewhere, maybe Otsuki or Numazu.

Luckily, O.-san knew Yamanashi prefecture very well. We discussed various roads. He explained that the course headed south almost down to the coast and then climbed back up north towards the “Fuji 5 lakes” (Fujigoko) because the organisers wanted to avoid the steep climbs necessitated by any more direct routes. The route was gaining about 800 m of altitude between PC6 and PC7, when riders already had 450 km in their legs.

I checked maps and posted on Facebook. Finally we both slept, then woke up in the morning, had some breakfast and got ready. We took some pictures at the lake, exchanged contacts and went our separate ways.

The return trip

80 km from the next PC with only 1 1/2 hours before its cut-off time the pressure was off for me, as I couldn’t make that anyway, even if I hadn’t announced my DNF. I could follow any route I chose. I still wanted to make it a decent distance, since this was probably going to stand as my longest personal ride distance for perhaps a year, assuming I were to ride a 600 km brevet next summer or autumn. Numazu was further than Otsuki, and I guessed there wouldn’t be any big climbs once I got beyond the rolling hill portion of Rt20. So I continued on the original course following Rt20, then Rt52 which joined Fuji river again. Except for the downhill coasting my speed was low. At Fuji river I left the course, staying on the big road down the river, which was fast and flat, though quite busy with cars and trucks.

I thought the busy road wasn’t really much fun, when I suddenly saw a signpost for Motosu. That was one of the short, steep climbs to get up to the Fuji 5 lake elevation and I knew the 5 lakes were nice. So I turned off onto the small road. Back through villages again, past playing kids and working farmers. I still had enough bananas for what I expected to be 2 hours of climbing.

The first steep climb took me up to a tunnel, then right down again to the starting elevation. The Motosu turn-off had been one valley too early. A bit shorter, but with bonus elevation for cyclists. I didn’t really mind. The idea of exploring new territory excited me.

The Motosu michi climb (Rt300) turned out to be pretty nice. While it was quite sunny and hot in places, there were many streams and water falls. I seemed to be surrounded by the sound of running water everywhere. Nice! I wasn’t sure how high I had to climb and I wasn’t fast, but I didn’t hit the wall either and wasn’t sleepy. It was steady progress. As I got closer to the tunnel at the top I took pictures of the valley below and the views.

Finally I reached the tunnel that took me over to the lake side. It was about 15:00. The other riders were already on Doshi michi, after Yamanakako (Lake Yamanaka).

Rt139 from Motosuko to Yamanakako was jammed with cars. It was basically one big traffic jam, as is typical on weekends. I got to Yamanako around sunset. I was glad to be off Rt139. Now I was down to the final 100 km. I was pretty confident now I could make it back home without any train ride, though I would get sleepy again.

I was surprised just how many cars were heading east from Yamanakako on Doshi michi. The climb to the toge is mercifully short, then comes a long fun fast descent. Every now and then I let a car pass me. They were only a little faster than me on the steeper sections. Two of them were police cars. I filled up my bottles again at the Michi no eki, then headed on.

To be honest, Doshi michi was too busy for me at night. I like Doshi michi at daytime, but everybody seemed to be driving really fast and I couldn’t help wondering how many drivers had had something to drink. Towards the Sagamihara side the road has a lot of ups and downs. I climbed many hills in a low gear, just wanting to get home. I started yawning again. Finally I found a convenience store with a car park and decided to stop for a nap, because I wanted to stay safe.

This wasn’t my last nap. I was OK again through Sagamihara and Machida and took pictures at the Cherubim bike shop (the official finish line), as I had completed the loop, though with only 540 km by then and outside the time limit.

From there I headed to Onekansen. Since the afternoon I felt like I had taken some kind of mushroom that makes every hill look 2-3 times steeper than it normally is. I still got up there, but always conserving my energy. Not far from the Tamagawa bridge I had to lie down once more, taking another nap on the sidewalk. I bought a cup of coffee at a convenience store and felt OK for the final 10 km. My heart rate stayed at a mere 74 bpm while cycling on flat roads. Around 04:00 I unlocked my front door back in Setagaya. 570 km with 4949 m on the GPS. I took a shower, washed my hair and went to bed.

What I learnt from the experience

I would do it again. I plan to do the full SR series next year, with the aim of completing all ride distances within the time limit. That may mean multiple rides of each length, depending on weather conditions. I know I can ride the distance. I can manage eating and drinking and navigating for this long.

My biggest problem this time was not having brought either my winter gear or at least my rain gear as an extra thermal layer. I would have been OK temperature-wise. Lack of sleep was the other problem, but it was partly related. I couldn’t really take nap breaks outside at the higher altitudes when I wasn’t dressed warm enough.

I had no problems managing power on my Garmin Edge 500 and the phone. I kept both going with a single 8000 mAh USB battery and two sets of cables, including a special host mode cable to allow simultaneous recording an charging on the Garmin 500. The 570 km ride came out as a single FIT file recorded over 47 hours, excluding only a couple of hours where the Garmin was paused while I was inside the McDonald’s. Normally the Garmin battery will last no more than 16 hours.

Instead of using my large Carradice saddle bag, I just bundled up my things into a pastic bag, covered it in a rain cover from a rucksack and tied it to the back of the saddle with rubber bands made from cut up old bicycle tubes. I am sure it was a lot lighter and more aerodynamic. The Carradice is great for touring, but for brevets with a time limit something more streamlined will work better.

The bananas were great. They are the ideal riding fuel for me. They never upset my stomach and I don’t get tired of them.

Besides carrying the right clothes, managing sleep will be essential on brevets beyond 200 km. Lack of sleep affects me badly and I’ll need to deal better with it. Part of the solution will have to be to be able to ride faster, so I can stay ahead of the cut-off time throughout the ride even if I take enough sleep breaks to keep functioning.

Tim Smith of GS Astuto said after the Haute Route 2013 cyclosportive, if it feels like the worst day in your life, you didn’t train enough. The BRMpre-921 was not the worst day (or two days) in my life, far from it. It definitely had its ups and downs, figuratively and literally. The last 50 km were the hardest, primarily due to sleep deprivation. I was happy about my performance on the first day and I am glad I got all the way back to Tokyo after the DNF without riding a train, seeing a lot of new places.

Next time I try a 400 km or 600 km ride it will feel less intimidating. I will know what to expect and what works for me. Last but not least, I will keep working on my performance, so I can go not only further but also do it faster, which in a timed event can be a precondition for going further.

Some advice I received and discussed

Talking to other participants and organisers, I received some advice that should help me on the next 600 km or longer brevet.

Treat brevets of 600 or 1200 km as series of 300 km day rides, with sleep breaks of 3 hours or more, depending on your speed.

Organisers often lay out the course with night stops near the 300 km points in mind. Sometimes there are Kenko Land bathhouses around there, where you can take a bath and lie down for a couple of hours in the rest area. There was no 24 hour Kenko Land in Chino (some of them close after 22:00). Other people make reservations at business hotels or minshuku, though it’s relatively expensive for the short stay.

Even love hotels can be an option, as they tend to have a cheap flat rate (“stay”, not by the hour) for the night after 22:00, which is lower than a single person business hotel rate, but covers two people. The short term room rate for between 2 and 5 hours (“rest”) is cheaper than a single person minshuku rate.

Newspaper stuffed down the front of the jersey and the bib tights can help keep the cold wind off the body. This should help on cold night rides and descents.

For sleeping outdoors, a mylar blanket (space blanket) is recommended. It conserves heat but is extremely light weight.

A cap and fleece neck warmer conserves heat around the head and neck, which are like the radiator of the body. I used a cotton handkerchief tied around my head and ears for that purpose on winter rides.

BRM413 “Kintaro” 200 km brevet

I completed my second official brevet of the year, a 201 km loop across the mountains west of Tokyo. Brevets are long distance cycling events, typically over distances of 200, 300, 400, 600 or 1200 km. More than pure distance, it’s the amount of climbing that can make for a hard brevet. The more total elevation, the harder it gets to meet the minimum average speed requirement of 15 km/h overall and up to each check point (PC). This 200 km brevet had over 3000 m, more than the 300 km Fuji brevet. In January I had already shadowed a 200 km brevet, as an unofficial rider without signup. In March I completed BRM309 in Izu, my first official brevet of the year. I managed to complete all three 200 km brevets under the time limit of 13 1/2 hour.

I got up at 03:45 for a 07:00 start, having had only 5 hours of sleep. Even though I had covered about 60% of the course in a personal ride in February, I was a bit anxious whether I would make the limit limit. Trying to keep up with other riders to save myself the hassle of navigating the course on my own, I worked pretty hard for the first 50 km, with my heart rate above the range I reach in training runs for extended periods. I started eating on the bike about 90 minutes after the start.

About one third of the distance, my rear fender fell off – metal fatigue of the aluminium bracket that attaches it to the frame! I just picked it up again and stuffed in my saddle bag. Fortunately we didn’t have any rain all day. It was relatively cool out there. I was wearing my winter tights and either one or two layers of jerseys. I may try to fix the fender by making a steel bracket to replace the broken aluminium one.

Throughout the ride I was quite happy with my progress relative to other riders. I didn’t feel particularly slow, but half way into the ride I was only 30 minutes ahead of the 15 km/h minimum pace, so I couldn’t feel easy.

The next climb after that I started solo from a convenience store and didn’t see anybody else for a long time. I was starting to question if I was still on the right road. Just like on my previous brevet in Izu peninsula, Google Maps on my Android was quite inaccurate away from the cities, often placing me kilometres from where I was, which is not a good basis to decide where to turn at the next junction. So I enabled the course on my Garmin Edge 500, which worked pretty well, just as it did in Izu. I think that will be my main navigation tool from now even though it looks very basic compared to Google Maps.

After finding the PC on the last big mountain after which the ride was named and having some food there I started to relax, knowing there would be no more big climbs for the rest of the trip. There were still plenty of hills, but nothing too bad. The only problem was dense weekend traffic from people heading home in the late afternoon.

I bumped into some friends of mine on the way back to the start/goal who turned out to be on the same brevet. We rode together for the remainder of the course, mostly me leading the group. On the final 20 km or we counted down every single remaining km. It was great to see we were still ahead of the time cutoff by a comfortable margin.

It was a terrific feeling to arrive after just under 13 hours on a course with over 3,000 m (10,000 ft) of climbing. The total for the day, including getting to and from the event, came to 213 km for me. The next brevet I’m signed up for is BRM518 — 300 km around Mt Fuji.