Two for Tohoku

Riders pass under the starting arch at the Tour de Tohoku

This year Tomo joined me for the Tour de Tohoku. The route was mostly a new one, and there were a few format changes from last year’s ride. Rather than having us form in groups with guides fore and aft, we joined a long, snaking queue to walk our bikes through an inspection point where we were checked for working lights, a helmet and gloves. Following the inspection, helpers recorded our bib numbers on a smartphone and used that to register our tracking beacons.

Large crowd of riders funneling through a starting gate
We can finally see the starting line

From there, it was more snaking, of the Disneyland Space Mountain sort, before we came to a stop in the middle of the pavement, in bright sunshine, to listen to the opening ceremony happening somewhere off to our left. Meanwhile, a photographer with an enormous lens was making his way down the line, getting permission to snap the entrants. Most smiled and gave a thumb’s up, but one middle-aged man with a monster-tired bike lifted his ride above his head as he mugged for the camera. We were glad to have been passed by, but then another photographer saw us. “Couple? Marvelous. Smile!” We just laughed and didn’t bother correcting him. (Now that might show up on a website somewhere … )

Finally the line started creeping forward as countdowns rang over the PA. We could see groups of 20-30 riders taking off from the front. Nana, who was on the sidelines with the Entourage, was running back and forth between our position and the starting line, trying to estimate when we would reach the front. We waited, cooling our heels, and then shuffling forward every couple of minutes as another group started off.

Selfie of two riders in helmets in front of the Tour de Tohoku starting arch
Waiting, waiting …

As we neared the starting line, the announcer gave us the usual caution about following traffic rules and being careful, and added a kicker: a rider had been attacked by a deer the day before. Tomo and I agreed we wouldn’t even want to be attacked by a squirrel.

Finally our turn came, 35 minutes after the first group had left the gate. With the Entourage cheering from the sidelines, we were on our way!

Riders pass under the starting arch at the Tour de Tohoku
And they’re off!

As we exited the parking lot of Ishinomaki Senshu University, we turned right on a narrow road, then right again, and then right again, and then … just 3.5km from the start, we found ourselves in another long queue of riders, this time single-file along the left side of the street leading up to a traffic light. Slowly we inched forward a couple of dozen meters each time the light cycled. I was starting to wonder if I should have loaded the course into my Garmin — I hadn’t bothered as I was expecting a guided ride as we’d had last year. But I didn’t have long to wonder as we finally passed through the light and then headed towards a line of mountains on the horizon.

Did someone mention climbing?

The 100km fondo was revised from last year, turning north along the coast after passing through Onagawa, rather than south to the Oshika Peninsula as last year’s route did. There was less climbing on the route this year at 947m (as measured) vs 2,055m, but there was still plenty of “up-down” in store for us. One of the more challenging climbs of the day came first at the 10km mark, a 48m rise at a 7% average. The climb had a couple of “steps” in it, welcome breaks to catch our breath for 10m or so. But that also meant the actual climbing parts were steeper than 7%.

I steamed ahead of Tomo at this point and gave it my best effort, and I’m glad to say I came out at the top. Yes, gasping for breath like a candidate for a coronary, but I made it. I waited a couple of minutes at the top for Tomo, who gave it her best but ended up pushing the bike to the top as she was stuck on the larger chainring. Knowing it was mostly downhill from there to the first rest stop at Onagawa at 18.5km, I let her stay in the high chainring until we reached the station. But after we’d filled up on meatballs in broth and bottled water, I coached her on shifting to the smaller chainring, which she did the moment we left the station.

And that was not a moment too soon, as our next climb started just half a kilometer out of the station, a 5% grade up to 52m, this time with a number of steps and turns along the way. I puffed my way up to the top and turned to wait. And after just a minute, Tomo came pedaling up to the top. “I made it,” she gasped out. I resolved to have her stay on the small chainring for the duration.

In the first bit of really good news for the ride, we didn’t have to pass over this monstrosity. I guess it was a temporary diversion and things are back to normal now.

The longest tunnel

At 37km we came to the next aid station and pulled off the road for some grilled scallops. We were getting pretty good at spotting openings on the bicycle stands — usually at the farthest point from the food.

Man cooking scallops on an outdoor gril
Scallops!

Tomo had been pointing out since we passed the first group of riders — the 210km fondo — while still in the taxi on our way to the start that there were not many women riders. We spotted one in the 210km group. This was borne out at each aid station as there was a long queue of men to reach the porta-potties, while there was usually one or at most two women waiting.

Aside from the lines for the relief stations, we saw a woman getting a scrape on her knee dressed. I didn’t see how serious it was, but we saw her again at the lunch stop.

It was just as well we had a nice, long wait for the facilities because the next segment took us up the longest climb of the day: an 89m climb on a 4% grade. As we started up it we were following a couple on matching electric bikes — not mamachari but the expensive kind with proper gears. As we watched, the man pulled ahead, leaving the woman struggling behind. Before long, I overtook her despite the electric power. It was a good, long 2km uphill and I wasn’t sure I would make it in one go, but I stuck with it to the top. I stopped just at the entrance to a tunnel and waited for Tomo to catch up. When she did arrive I missed her at first in the crowd, and she was busy wiping sweat out of her eyes.

Riders topping the peak of a climb as others look on from the shoulder
The longest climb

After a brief rest I signaled Tomo to set the pace and I fell in behind as we entered the tunnel, lights on for safety. The Kamaya Tunnel is 1km long, and paved in concrete with long lateral grooves (in the direction of travel) about 3-4cm apart. It made for a very slippery, wobbly feeling as our tires hunted across the grooves. We would have been quite a bit more nervous about riding through the tunnel if there had been more traffic, but we were very lucky in that regard.

Immediately after the tunnel we entered a swooping 1.5km descent, taking us right back to sea level at speeds approaching 40km/h. The drop brought us down to the Kitakami river, which we crossed and then turned to the right, heading up along the Oppa Bay and into the wind. At this point I overtook Tomo, holding a steady 18km/h pace and thinking I was providing some wind shelter for her, but when I looked back she’d fallen a bit behind.

I waited for Tomo just before the entrance to Shirahama Tunnel, which was the starting point of the most challenging climbing of the day. We knew that lunch was waiting for us at the end of the climb, a delicious seafood curry to give us motivation. And yet at this point we didn’t seem to make any headway as we worked our way up and down the ridges along the ocean’s edge. There was some fantastic scenery, but also some hurting climbs: 9% for a 27m rise, 5.5% for a 38m rise. And on and on. And after each climb, a drop back to the start. And then another climb. I looked for a place at the top of each climb to wait for Tomo to come pushing her bike up behind me — and she wasn’t the only one by a long shot.

We knew we were within 1-2km of the lunch rest — just half a screen away on my phone (which didn’t have any scale) — when we got a message from Nana. She’d taken a taxi with the Entourage and they were waiting for us at the lunch spot. More incentive to press ahead (although to be honest we were both mostly thinking about lunch and a rest at this point). At the same time, we saw riders coming back in the opposite direction, pushing up the hills we were descending, and we knew we had that waiting for us once we’d rested and digested.

Seafood curry!

A final couple of dips past the ocean, with waves pounding the stony coast, and rolling uphills brought us at last to the aid station, a modicum of shade, and most importantly: lunch! There were several unidentifiable bits that I simply wolfed down in my quest for calories. Tomo and Nana put their heads together and came up with the answer: hoya. (I looked it up later and was just as glad I hadn’t known when I’d been eating it.) It had taken a few minutes owing to the poor cell reception in this remote park, but Nana had finally tracked us down and she and the Entourage put down their beers long enough to wish us a speedy conclusion to our ride.

I knew that Tomo wanted to rest more — as did I! — and neither of us was looking forward to going back over the lumpy bits we’d just traversed in search of lunch. But we checked the time. It was 1:30, and we knew we had 40-some kilometers to go. We had a deadline of 6 p.m., when the bag check back at Ishinomaki closed. And so we bravely mounted up and headed back into the ridges. Again I found myself forging ahead, barely making it to the top before stopping to wait for Tomo to come pushing her bike up behind. And then we had the roller-coaster descents, reaching 55km/h at one point.

Safety first

At the start we were warned that a deer had attacked a rider the previous day. We were given the usual warnings about traffic rules and admonishments to use proper hand signals.

During the day we saw a couple of riders with injuries. At one aid station a woman was having her knee bandaged. At the lunch station, we saw a man with his arm in a sling climbing into a medical van. Then, after lunch, in the middle of a steepish downhill, we first saw a support rider signalling us to slow down, and then behind him a medical van. Finally we saw several people assisting a man who appeared to have lost control on the downhill and gone into the wall. We haven’t heard anything subsequently about his condition.

The Big Easy

Just past Shirahama Tunnel we turned off into an aid station. I held out my water bottle for what I thought would be clear, cold water and ended up with Pokari. It was just as well. We both felt by this time we’d been rolling in sand, and when we wiped the sweat from our faces we came away with handfuls of salt. I stood admiring another rider’s handmade steel bike before seeking out shade while Tomo went in search of a ladies’ room.

With the necessities out of the way, we hit the road again. We had a brief climb before we were back on the shore of the Oppa Bay, this time heading in the opposite direction and with the wind behind us. It was 3 p.m. and we had 30km to go. We made a little bet about making it to the goal by 5 p.m. With the wind to our backs — but the setting sun in our eyes — we crossed the bridge back over the Kitakami River. This time we turned right and followed the river back towards Ishinomaki. The going was smooth and extremely flat.

We’d fallen in behind a small group of riders straggling along at 16-18km/h. I was starting to think that Tomo was just happy to follow whoever was in front. In truth she was just biding her time for the right moment. With a quick “Here I go!” tossed over her shoulder, she was off like a scalded cat, hitting 30km/h as she passed the stragglers and aimed for open road. It took me some doing to catch up, and over the next 5km she never once dipped below 25km/h on the flat. I laughed to myself as I realized Tomo was tired and wanted to get back to the goal. We overtook more than a few riders in similar fashion until we got back into the Ishinomaki suburbs. Now, with traffic to contend with, the pace fell off a bit.

I was counting out the 5km breaks. My legs were fine but my hands and butt were sore, and I was thinking of the closing time for the bag check, as well as the bath and dinner waiting for us back at the hotel. Tomo was keeping up the pace, but she was riding the smallest cog on the rear while staying on the smaller chainring on the front, and that was making noise. She’d go at it a few minutes and then back down a couple of gears until the noise stopped. I knew what she was up to and thought about coaching her to shift up to the big chainring. But then I thought it would just cause confusion, and besides, I couldn’t be sure there wasn’t still a hidden climb lying in wait for us before we got back to the university.

Finally we recognized the car entrance to the university, just as I called out “95!” “What happened?” Tomo asked, meaning we were still 5km short of 100, but we had far less than that to go before the finish line.

“If you like, we can do laps around the university until we hit 100,” I offered. “He. He. He,” was the sarcastic laugh in reply. We turned a final corner, with a baton-waver welcoming us back, and sped together towards the finish line.

“I did it!” Tomo proclaimed. The time was 4:20 p.m.

Aftermath

We’d done it — that much was true. But there were still some things to take care of before we were soaking in the (separate) baths prior to a well-earned dinner. We picked up our bags from the bag check, then got our certificates of completion and “newspapers” with our group start photo.

Front page of the Kahoku Shimpo showing the group start at the Tour de Tohoku
Kahoku Shimpo

With our goodies in hand, we walked our bikes to the delivery area. It was a matter of a couple of minutes to fit them back in the boxes and hand them over to the delivery company. Tomo was so exhausted by this time she was having difficulty speaking English (taking several seconds to remember each word that I well knew she knew), and I was answering her in Japanese. She called a taxi with no difficulty, though, and we were soon speeding back to the hotel. The driver wanted to know what some Michael Jackson lyrics meant, and I was so exhausted I gave him a totally erroneous explanation. (When I confessed to Tomo later what I’d done, she said, “It doesn’t matter: he’ll never realize that.”) After that, though, he wanted to talk about a Japanese boy band I’m only vaguely aware of, and I left it to Tomo to say “Uh-huh, uh-huh” in the appropriate places.

Back at the hotel I picked up my yukata and headed for the bath. I had the rotemburo to myself as the sun began to set, and I spent much longer than I usually do letting the bath soak my aches away. Nana and the Entourage returned just in time for dinner. I ran out of steam during dinner and made my apologies and headed to bed. It didn’t matter: We’d finished. I made my goal of climbing all the hills, not pushing. And Tomo finished her first 100km ride (or nearly so), which was quite an accomplishment given her lack of practice beforehand. Meanwhile, the Entourage seem to have enjoyed their travels for the day. We’re already talking about next year, and debating whether to rent a van rather than taking the shinkansen and having the bikes delivered.

Tour de Tohoku route
Tour de Tohoku route

Kitakami Fondo route at LatLongLab

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