BRM520 300 km Mt Fuji

There is one cycling event I have ridden every year since I started long distance cycling five years ago, the 300 km brevet around Mt Fuji organised by AJ Nishitokyo. It was my introduction to randonneuring in 2012. This year I rode it for the sixth time, with unexpected results.

For the first four years I rode my Bike Friday Pocket Rocket, a folding road bike with 20″ (ETRTO 451) wheels. Last year I used my new adventure bike, the Elephant Bikes National Forest Explorer, 650B randonneur bike with disk brakes. Most of my cycling friends expected the bigger wheels would make a big difference on the completion time: The event has a 20 hour time limit and I had always struggled to stay under the limit. The last two years on the Bike Friday I had finished with 11 minutes and 15 minutes spare. The first time on my NFE I finished in 19h 45m again – the same time to the minute as a year before! The Bike Friday really has been a great bike for me and if I had not been fast on it, that wasn’t because of the bike but because of the engine! 😉

Because this event starts at 22:00 at night, with the first 6 1/2 hours of riding through the night, getting enough sleep upfront is essential. I tried to avoid staying up much after midnight for the week before the ride and took short daytime naps on Thursday and Friday. On Saturday afternoon I went to bed at 15:00, planning to sleep until 18:00, but mostly rested. I don’t think I slept more than about the last hour.

I left home at 18:50 to cycle the 28 km to the start in Machida and was intending to ride home after the event too. So that’s 56 km on top of the 304 km of the event itself. I took it very easy, knowing I’d have plenty of time.

I bought bananas at a convenience store a few km before the start. The reception at a park near the Cherubim bike shop in Machida opened at 21:00. I saw many new faces, including younger riders.

It had been warm and sunny all day and the forecast for Sunday was the same, so I didn’t even wear a windbreaker at the start. Only for the early morning descent from Gotemba to Numazu did I bring my nylon rain pants, because that was going to be the coldest time of the night, before sunrise and going downhill for about 25 km.

The briefing started at 21:30. There aren’t any changes to the course from the year before, but temperatures would be quite different as last year’s event had been run about 8 weeks earlier in the year. Knowing it would get hot on the long climb on the opposite side of Mt Fuji, I decided to build up a decent time buffer until the morning, when it was still cool, so I would not risk overheating as much later in the day.

After the security inspection we started. The route to the untimed checkpoint in front of some public toilets in Enoshima (38.6 km), where we had to collect a signature on the brevet card from staff members, was pretty urban, with streetlights, cars and traffic lights all along. I made good time and arrived before midnight. It helped that I didn’t have to stop to take off a layer.

There was a large group motorbikes near the checkpoint. I came across groups of bikers throughout the ride, including several encounters with Bōsōzoku clubs making a racket on their two stroke bikes and weaving about on the road.

About half of the 35 km route from Enoshima to PC1 at Odawara I was drafting other cyclists, similar to last year. The Nitto Randonneur bars make it much easier to use my drops to get into a more aerodynamic position to save energy. I arrived at PC1 at 01:26, with 86 minutes spare, 5 minutes more than last year.

After Odawara the route starts climbing until it levels out at an elevation of about 400 m around Gotemba. I was still riding mostly with other cyclists. In Gotemba I put on my wind breaker and nylon pants for the descent. I rode down to Numazu with another cyclist, separated only temporarily when I stopped to take a shot of the first Mt Fuji view around 04:00, still about half an hour before sunrise. A waning moon hung in the eastern sky. It reminded me that we’re only three months away from the total solar eclipse in the western US on Aug 21, 2017.

Though I was yawning at times, I felt no urge to take a nap and continued on to Fuji city, maintaining my pace. I only stopped for a few quick photos of Fuji in the early morning light.

I counted down the distance to the Fujikawa bridge, where the road turns away the coast. I used the public toilets near the Tomei expressway entrance, so I could avoid queuing at PC2, only a couple of km up the road.

I tried to take pictures of Mt Fuji from the south-west, but the sun was behind it and the air was too hazy.

I made it to PC2 by 06:56, 132 minutes ahead of closing time. This was 26 minutes earlier than the year before.

It was still early in the morning, but it was already getting warm. From here it was about 36 km uphill, from close to sea level to about 1100 m. Some of the road was shaded under trees, but most of it was exposed to the sun.

Having done this brevet before, I knew this part of the ride was both rewarding for its views of Mt Fuji and green landscapes, but also tough for the relentlessly climbing road where I was pedaling in the heat. I had also done it on a rainy day, with only a few degrees above freezing, that wasn’t much fun either.

Until the climbing started I had consoled myself that even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, the elevation (adiabatic cooling) would somehow make it bearable. Somebody forgot to pass that message to my Navi2coach GPS, whose thermometer displayed as high as 39 C at one point.

The air may have been cooler over the meadows and forests I was passing, but the south-tilted dark asphalt of the prefectural road 71 soaked up just as much sunshine at elevation as it would have at sea level. I was like riding on top of a barbecue. I stopped a couple of times for views and pictures and that made it easier to continue.

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I made it to the top around 10:30 and pulled into a parking area and view point overlooking Motosuko (Lake Motosu).

I took a couple of pictures, ate a banana and got back on the bike again. After a bit of rolling terrain the road descended. The forest surrounding it is called Aokigahara (青木ヶ原), also known as the Suicide Forest for the number of people who picked it to take their own lives there.

At the bottom of the descent, the minor road joined major Rt139, which is usually crowded with cars. Some of it’s surface is very rough, especially around Fujiyoshia. This is where the wide tires of my NFE really helped. They give me the confidence to descend faster even where the road surface is far from perfect.

After Fujiyoshida came a 25 km fast descent down to Tsuru. I didn’t have to pedal much and trusted my tires to deal with the bumps and cracks at speed, with several other cyclists in trail, none of whom ever tried to overtake me until after the road leveled out. It was till before noon and heating up more and more.

At 12:20 three of us pulled into PC3 at Tsuru. That was 92 minutes ahead of closing time. I knew I had previous made here with only 35 minutes spare. I was now 47 minutes ahead of last year’s result. But it was still going to get hotter for another hour or more from here.

The final 66 km from Tsuru to Machida were the hottest part of the ride. I used my lightest gear a lot, climbing slowly to avoid overheating. I am not usually someone who worries much about heat stroke. I drink sufficient water and keep the effort down when I feel it’s getting too hot out there, but this time I was starting to worry. Three or four of us stayed together more or less continually for the last leg of the trip, nobody willing to go any faster in this heat. I counted down the distances to the top of each climb.

Finally we made it to Doushi road (National route 413), for a lengthy descent. we stopped at a convenience store where AJ Nishitokyo staff met with us. Some ice cream cooled me down a bit. Based on the remaining distance it looked like I could finish before 17:00, with more than an hours pare. That would be my best result ever.

I felt relieved when I crossed the last major bridge, where I crossed back into the urban area of Sagamihara and counted down the final kilometers to Machida.

At 16:51 I pulled up in front of the Cherubim bike shop, together with one of the other participants. I had finished 54 minutes faster than in 2015 and 2016.

I’m very happy to have made it safely. I thanked the AJ Nishitokyo staff. As always they took good care of everyone. The route is difficult, but rewarding. I often incorporate large parts of it into other long distance rides that I do privately.

As to why I finished so much quicker this year, I am not sure. Looking at the elapsed times between PCs both years, I gained 21 minutes between PC1-PC2, another 21 minutes between PC2-PC3 and 7 minutes even from the last PC to the goal, in the heat. So I was pretty consistently faster. The first 73 km to PC1 is where I gained the least relative to last year (5 minutes), probably because I was already working hard there last year. Overall I took about a 100 photographs on both rides, so it wasn’t that I stopped less for pictures.

Perhaps my two recent rides of the Oume temple loop, with 2500-2700 m of elevation gain on 180+ km of cycling each time, helped prepare me for the amount of climbing 🙂 Whatever it was, I’m happy!

Oh, and I did ride 28 km back to Tokyo after the brevet, tired and sleepy, but I made it safely. I won’t be able to ride AJ Nishitokyo’s 400 km brevet this year due to business trips and I’m not sure yet if I’ll attempt the 600 km brevet in September again – I have DNF’ed (did not finish) it three times so far. Finishing it is a bit like riding a 400 km brevet, then finish this 300 km brevet starting from the bottom of the big climb at PC2… Pretty insane!

What I enjoy about these brevets is not just the scenery and the challenge, but also the camaraderie and shared love of cycling among randonneurs. We all have this same passion.

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.

BRM326 NishiTokyo – 360 km around Mt Fuji on my NFE

My first introduction to Randonneuring was a 300 km ride around Mt Fuji with AJ NishiTokyo on my Bike Friday in May 2012 (2012BRM519). It starts at 22:00 on a Saturday night, with a 20 hour time limit for a finish by 18:00 on Sunday. This ride offers so much variety. If the weather is good you get to see Mt Fuji from almost all directions, with a foreground that ranges from industrial factories to dairy pastures (and smells that match the image). Temperatures can vary as much as 20 degrees C during the ride. Lighting changes from midnight to noon, sunrise to sunset. The course includes multiple 30 km climbs and 20 km continuous descents, with elevations from sea level to over 1100 m.

This Fuji loop is the one brevet I have done every year since then, though it felt very different each time. In 2013 we got gorgeous views of Mt Fuji (2013BRM518). The next year it rained continuously for the first 150 km (2014BRM419). In 2015 I was joined by my son Shintaro, for whom it was his first brevet too (2015BRM328). For 2016 I switched to my new Elephant Bikes National Forest Explorer (2016BRM326).

Last year, when I still rode the brevet on my Bike Friday, Shintaro and I took the train to Machida. Since I don’t have a rinko bag for my Elephant NFE, I decided to ride out to Machida for the start and also to ride back from the finish after the event. This brought the total to around 360 km with 3300 m of elevation gain.

Preparation

My intention was to get a couple of hours of sleep on Saturday afternoon before heading out to Machida, but I was still messing around with batteries for cameras, lights and USB power (for the phone and GPS) and then trying to install a Wahoo speed/cadence sensor delivered that morning when I was already supposed to be in bed. I ran out of time on the speed sensor and took it off the bike again. When I finally did lie down for an hour, I found I couldn’t go to sleep so I ended up only resting with my eyes closed. Note to myself: If you start on a Saturday night, make sure you finish this stuff by Friday night!

I left home around 18:30 and headed to Machida at an easy pace. At a convenience store not far from the start I bought a bunch of bananas and had some food and rest before I headed to the registration. I made a mental note to add 28.5 km to the cue sheet distances for my GPS distance count, as this was how much I already cycled.

To Enoshima and Odawara

At the start I met many friends, some of whom I meet at almost every AJ NishiTokyo brevet. I loaded up the route on the GPS and after the briefing and safety inspection we headed off. The first 39 km down to Enoshima are mostly flat and there are always other cyclists to ride with. Once I stopped at a convenience store to use the toilet, but back on the road another group of randonneurs soon showed up. We got to Enoshima before midnight and had our brevet cards signed by a staff member. In most previous years I mostly rode alone from Enoshima to Odawara, but this year I had no problem riding with other people all the way to PC1 (point de contrôle 1 = check point #1), 73 km from the start / 102 km from home, where we arrived about 01:30 in the morning.

Gotemba, Fuji city and PC2

From here to Gotemba I mostly rode by myself, as I’m a slow climber. The road gains about 450 m of elevation over 30 km. There is relatively little traffic as locals are in bed and long distance traffic uses the parallel running Rt246 or Tomei expressway. It felt great when the climb finally leveled off near Gotemba and I stopped to get changed.

Knowing from experience how cold the early morning descent towards Numazu can be, I had brought sufficient layers. I was wearing long johns under my warm uniqlo lined trousers, plus four layers at the top: heattech underwear, Half-Fast Cycling long sleeve jersey, Bicycle Line winter jacket, uniqlo wind breaker. I wrapped a towel around my head and fixed it in place with the helmet chin straps, which kept my ears, cheeks and the chin toasty warm. The 7-11 knitted smartphone gloves are the warmest I have, more comfortable than my Bicycle Line winter gloves. I felt totally comfortable over the next 20+ km, as I was charging down towards the coast at 30 km/h and more with several other cyclists in trail.

Once the road flattened out I had to take off a layer and my towel so I wouldn’t overheat. Then I chased behind another passing randonneur and drafted him until a few km before the Fujikawa bridge. The morning was beautiful as the sun came out, with the moon still in the sky on the other side.

I could see snow on the peaks of the Japanese Southern Alps to the west.

Mount Fuji was visible to the north, but initially only its base could be seen while the top was obscured by clouds. Gradually the clouds thinned and the still wintry top was revealed.

I briefly stopped for food at a convenience store. I couldn’t really afford to take time for a sit-down breakfast at a restaurant. When you’re a slow cyclist like me you have to minimize time off the bike to still make time limits, particularly when you also take time to take pictures!

Finally I crossed the Fujikawa river and turned away from the coast, riding together with another randonneur until PC2 (167 km from the start / 195 km from home).

The west side of Mt Fuji

This was around 7:20, so I was about 1:45 ahead of cutoff time, but the biggest climb still lay ahead. From PC2 to the viewpoint above Lake Motosu-ko the road climbed relentlessly for over 30 km and I would burn up much of that cushion as my speed would drop below the 15 km average that cutoff times are based on. I would remind myself of beautiful view of the lake that lay ahead, plus the easy descent towards Kawaguchiko and then a long and fast one on the main road down to Tsuru, where PC3 was located. I would reclaim a lot of time again on those descents.

But the real treat on the climb are the Fuji views and the quiet back country. Especially at the higher end the road passes many dairy farms so the eyes wander over green meadows, blue skies and white snow on the slopes of Mt Fuji.

It was around 11:00 when I finally reached the car park at the viewpoint, around 200 km from the start and 228 km from home, to admire the view of Lake Motosu-ko.

The car park was completely deserted. This time it was warm and sunny, unlike in 2014 when it had rained throughout the night and we had to descend from here in wet clothes and shoes and only a few degrees above freezing.

Fujiyoshia, Tsuru, Akiyama

The descent down to the main Rt139 felt relatively short now that it was warm and dry. Rt139 is not the greatest road, its surface rough and worn and there are many cars but the wide 650B tyres of the NFE absorbed the worst of the roughness and traffic was lighter than at other times I had taken it.

In Fujiyoshida I met another cyclist and together we started the descent down towards Tsuru. This is a fast downhill and fun, even though it’s still a bad road with too much traffic.

I had recovered a little on the descent, but still my legs were feeling worn out and it was getting more and more difficult to sit on the saddle, unlike on the Izu brevet, where I was happy until the end.

I made it to PC3 45 minutes ahead of the cutoff. Knowing I had previously completed with half an hour spare at this point, I felt fairly confident I could finish the remaining 66 km under the time limit.

I got more food, ate a bit and refilled my bottles, then headed off towards the Akiyama climb on Rt35, the biggest remaining climb. It passes by the Maglev test track and is followed by about 10 km of mostly descending. I like the villages and rural scenery around there, even if I couldn’t quite enjoy it as much with my sore legs and bottom. I was also starting to yawn every now and then as the effects of adrenaline wore off and lack of sleep started catching up with me. Still, it was nothing like on my first ride of this course. So I just kept turning the pedals, up and down the hills, and counted down the km and remaining minutes until I got closer and closer to Machida.

Finishing the ride

On the last few km before the finish a car turning left totally ignored me going straight and cut me off, but I managed to avoid it. I rode together with three other cyclists and we pulled up together in front of the Cherubim bike shop 15 minutes before the 18:00 closing time.

After having my brevet card and receipts checked, I relaxed with other cyclists and staff and waited for the remaining participants to return safely before course closing time. Then I cycled back to Tokyo, stopping at one conbini for a cup of coffee and a short 15 minute nap on a chair, since I was really getting sleepy by now. I got home safely, took a shower and went to bed.

Summary and outlook

It was an amazing experience again. We were very lucky with the weather. I loved getting good views of Mt Fuji again.

I’m happy with my result and very happy with my bike. Considering that unlike last year I didn’t sleep the afternoon before the ride and that I didn’t take a train to Machida but cycled to the start I didn’t make it easy for myself, but still achieved what I had set out to do.

I know on the climb to the Motosu-ko viewpoint and also from PC3 to Machida I had worked much harder last year, to make sure Shintaro and I would not exceed the time limit (DNF). This year I took it easier on those climbs. I think I could afford to do that because I had done well on the flat and downhill sections to Odawara (PC1) and from Gotemba to PC2, which was made much easier by the Elephant NFE and its superior comfort from the wider 650B tyres.

Next up will be BRM423 400 km around Mt Fuji, again with AJ NishiTokyo. Last year was the first time I completed that, in 26:01 (59 minutes under the limit) by not sleeping at all. I think I’ll try that plan again this year. It will hinge on getting enough sleep upfront, but otherwise I think I’m well prepared for the next adventure.

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).

Koyo, three toge and a curry

With my nephew’s visit over and a sunny weekend forecast, I wanted to ride some distance again, which I finally did yesterday (196 km with 2234 m of climbing).

On Saturday night I set my alarm for 04:30, still undecided between 4-5 courses. Though I had planned to leave for wherever by 05:30, I didn’t actually head out until an hour later, having checked work email etc. (flexibility is one of the things I like about riding on my own). By the time I was ready to roll I had more or less settled on a clockwise Tsuru toge loop.

RideWithGPS:

I had done a similar ride before, but not during the autumn leaves season, and heading out via Wada toge instead of Musashiitsukaichi and the Route 33 tunnel from Hinohara that I took on Sunday.

It felt like the first winter ride of the season for me: Cold air, a constant need to keep warm, but clear skies and many Fuji views to make up for that:

Within about 10 minutes of leaving home, the temperature readout of the navi2coach GPS dropped to 8 C. I was wearing uniqlo long johns and underwear under my long sleeve TCC kit, plus my Bicycle Line “Eternity” winter jacket, winter gloves and my nylon rain pants as an extra layer to keep the legs warm. Somewhere on the Tamagawa I took off the winter jacket and rain pants and switched to the half gloves as the morning sun raised temperatures above 10 C.

When I wanted to load up the map for @Half-Fast Mike’s excellent Akigawa route from Rt16 to Musashiitsukaichi on Google Maps, I was surprised to get a “No My Maps found” error. Google Maps 7.x.x came out a year and a half ago without the “My Maps” feature. You could keep using it by disabling automatic updates and sticking with 6.x.x, but Google recently announced they would drop support for it, which has now happened. Alas, I’ll finally have to find an alternative for following courses on Android on long rides.

The assistance wasn’t really needed, as I remembered enough from previous rides to get all the way to Musashiitsukaichi without making one wrong turn. I stopped at the new Familiymart one km before the 7-11, as somebody had recently mentioned it favourably. They have a cafe corner with chairs, with wall sockets for charging mobile gadgets. So I could enjoy my caffeine and second breakfast sitting down with a view of the blue sky outside from a place with room temperature 🙂

Somewhere around Hinohara I came across a Harley-Davidson enthusiasts’ get together. I took some pictures, was asked where I’m from and was offered to have my picture taken:

The climb up to the tunnel on Rt33 towards Uenohara was not as long or steep as I remembered it, perhaps because I wasn’t climbing in summer. This is where I passed the first of only two cyclists on the whole 196 km ride who were slower than me (the other one was on the climb from Okutama-ko to Kazahari-toge).

Route 18 to Kosuge village is only 23 km from the junction beyond the tunnel, but it was a very long 23 km, especially the last third. But it was also very pretty and old fashioned.

Old fire fighting pump:

After the repeated climbs and descents to Kosuge village, I knew I was at the half way point. Only one climb to go, even though it was the biggest one. I changed back into my winter jacket for the descent to Okutama. It was only 12 C now and mid-afternoon. I felt tired from the climbing, but it was hard to enjoy the descent to the lake with the chilly air. I was actually looking forward to the next climb to get warm again.

The roads between Hinohara and Okutama-ko are still a playground for weekend racers, by car and by motorbike.

As almost every weekend there was a police speed trap in the forest near Hinohara. On the climb from the lake I passed two police vans with more than half a dozen bikers standing around. On the descent past Tomin no Mori two police cars, then a fire truck and finally an ambulance came up the mountain. I passed two or three spots with flowers by the road side where someone must have died. I think the road gets closed at night to minimize accidents after dark (and related need for emergency vehicle trips).

The 16 km climb from the lake to the summit with over 600 m of elevation gain seemed easier then Rt18, not only because it’s fewer km, but also because it doesn’t go up and down, so you can always feel you’re working towards a known goal, elevation-wise.

I got to the top around sunset:

With only 6 C at the top and the sun gone, the descent towards Musashiitsukaichi was long and cold. I wore every piece of fabric I was carrying, but it still wasn’t enough. Finally I made it to the same Familymart where I had had breakfast and grabbed more food and coffee to warm up.

After some rest I decided to miss the scenic Akigawa backroute and simply followed boring Rt7 back towards the Tamagawa. Fortunately it wasn’t too busy that time of the day.

I got back to Setagaya a little before 22:00 and dropped into a local Nepalese restaurant for a curry and naan take-away. Needless to say, I slept really well that night 🙂

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(*) Koyo = autumn leaves (viewing)
Toge = mountain summit

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.

My 300 km Mt Fuji brevet ride (BRM518)

BRM519 was my third brevet ride with AJ NishiTokyo this year and my fifth brevet overall (including an unofficial shadow ride in January). It makes May the 9th month in a row for me with a Century ride (over 160 km / 100 miles).

I’d been wanting to ride this brevet again since I did it last year (my first brevet ever). I worried about family or business travel that might conflict, or about foul weather on the day, but none of that came to pass.

Like last year I was the only one attempting the brevet on a small wheeled bike, but while I heard a few skeptical comments last year, as people thought I was attempting something very difficult, the comments I got this year were overwhelmingly positive. I got many compliments on the Bike Friday, my folding road bike.

I left home at 19:20 on Saturday, got back around 20:30 on Sunday and slept all of 20 minutes in between. I rode 360 km (224 miles) altogether, since this time I didn’t pack my Bike Friday into the bicycle bag for a train ride to and from Machida (the starting point), but rode from Tokyo-Setagaya to the west side of Mt Fuji and back. That makes it the longest bike ride for me so far.

At the signup I was greeted by David and William, who I had met through my blog post about the Nichitsu ghost town ride last year. This was the 3rd brevet we rode together. The previous weekend they had completed a 100 km hike for charity. Kudos to them!

Garmin troubles

I’d been training for this event for a year and bought a Garmin 500 with heart rate monitor belt in January, but Sod’s law would have it that the battery of the belt ran out just before the event. I had done a last training ride a week earlier and everything had worked fine, but when I rode out to the start on Saturday night, the Garmin did not pick up data from the HR belt. I suspected the HR sensor battery (I had used the belt for 2500 km over 4 months). A CR2032 button cell was 250 yen ($2.50) at the next convenience store, but I also needed a tiny screw driver (the size used for eye glasses and watches) to change it. A mechanic at the Cherubim bike shop (where the brevet signup takes place) helped me out. Thank you!

With the new battery the Garmin started displaying numbers though it also warned me about the presence of multiple heart rate sensors, hardly surprising in the reception area of a brevet!

Another problem was that near the 298 km mark, the Garmin lost satellite reception, with no tunnel or other obstacle to explain it. Also, the route as plotted by Strava has me swerve out into the Pacific once. Though my Garmin charger cable worked beautifully to extend its battery life beyond 16 hours, I’d say the jury is still out on whether the Garmin 500 will cope with brevets beyond 200 km.

Too fast and too slow

Why do I use a Garmin if I ignore its data? The idea with HR data is to always operate at your maximum sustainable rate for the duration of the event. I didn’t do that, far from it.

On brevets you need to maintain a minimum average speed of 15 km/h (by elapsed time, including all breaks) overall for the course and up to each check point (PC). Since most climbs are such that my speed will drop below 15 km/h and I can’t make up the lost time on faster descents because they are too short for that, I need to build up a time buffer on flat sections. The first third or so of the course was mostly flat, so we could go fast. I also worked hard for the first 50 km of the 200 km West Izu and Kintaro brevets, but foolishly pushed even harder during the first 75 km of the 300 km, when I should have slightly dropped my speed to allow for the longer course. On top of that I felt the effects of riding through the night without sleep.

As a result, the 4 hour climb from sea level at Fujikawa to 1,100 m above Lake Motosu was really slow. Most of the time my heart rate wouldn’t move much beyond 120, when it had been in the high 150s/low 160s on the flat sections. This is where I lost a lot of time.

I only recovered via the long descent from the pass to Fujiyoshida and then down to Tsuru. My banana-raisin-outmeal energy bars also helped. I think they perked me up more than any bread or onigiri (rice balls wrapped in sea weed) I bought in the convenience store.

Before the Tsuru check point I had all but written off my chances of completing within the time limit. I had to take a second brief nap by the road side at R139 before Fujiyoshida. The high speed descent from Fujiyoshida to Tsuru is always fun and by the time I got there, my time buffer didn’t look great, but workable.

In the end I was 17 minutes faster than last year and will receive my brevet medal by mail 🙂

Teru teru bozu at work

The Fuji brevet two years ago (2011) got rained out. Though the real hard core riders battled it out in their rain gear, from the pictures it didn’t look like a pleasant experience. The weather report had forecast rain for Sunday right up until the last day, when the outlook changed to something more positive and it worked out OK. At the pre-ride briefing one of the organisers showed us the “teru teru bozu” (anti-rain charm usually made by kids) to ward off rain. Of course I don’t believe in this stuff, but it only started drizzling during the last 30 km before the goal, and only on and off. It was so little, I didn’t even put my smartphone away until I had arrived.

I had discussed my concerns about the weather with my friend Jose and he advised to make sure I’d be warm enough if it rained. I had considered wearing either my GS Astuto bib shorts on top of a long base layer or my dhb winter bib tights and finally opted for the latter. As it happened, the first choice would have been better. I only wore my windbreaker between 04:00 and 06:00 for the early morning descent from Gotemba to the coast. The weather and what to wear is always a guessing game on long rides, especially if you want to minimize how much you carry.

What’s next?

Just like after last year’s 300 km brevet, the AJ NishiTokyo organizers asked me if I was going to give the 400 km brevet in June a try. Also, from next year they will have a 600 km event, for which they will do a trial run in September. My main concern about the longer rides is the effects of lack of sleep. I did much better on that front this year. Short naps work well for me and I probably should have tried one sooner this time. Riding to the brevet start was a decision I only made hours earlier and I still brought along the rinko bag, in case I was too tired after the ride to consider cycling home, but as it happened, I never used it (I could leave it with the staff during the ride). 400 km over 27 hours isn’t that much more than the 360 km over 25 hours that I rode for this event. So I would say, I am definitely up for a 400 km brevet in the future.