Last weekend after some rather elaborate planning, we loaded the bikes into a rental van and set off for Ibaraki Prefecture and the Tsukuba-Kasumigaura Ring-Ring Road. I’d originally planned a couple of rides using Kasumigaura as a home base, but it turns out there are no onsen there to relax in after the ride. After a bit of searching I came up with Itako as a base, with two rides — Kitaura and Kasumigaura — using that as a launching spot.
It was a long weekend, with holidays on Thursday and Friday. We decided to beat the rush, though, arriving at the hotel on Sunday and doing the shorter of the two rides — Kitaura — and then staying through Tuesday. This turned out to be the winning plan. When we arrived (after enduring a couple of deluges of rain on the way) it seemed we were the only guests at the hotel. There was plenty of parking space, and we set about decamping the bikes and changing into our riding gear.
Tomo had packed her bike into a travel bag in order to meet us at the car rental agency near home, and so we need to assemble it — simply a matter of putting the wheels back on and making sure all was in order. Meanwhile, the Halfakid had ridden his bike to our flat in the morning (in pouring rain, it should be noted) and so no assembly was required. On the other hand, we noticed that his headset was loose. As I coached him through the process of tightening it up, it became apparent that the tightening bolt had been only finger-tight.
With the mechanicals sorted (or so we thought) and the course loaded in the Garmin, we set out to circumnavigate Kitaura. Within 1km, though, it became apparent that Kuroko’s tires were too soft. I’d just filled them in the morning before setting out in the rental van, mindful that they were still seeping air following the conversion to tubeless tires. Here we were, a scant five hours later, with the tires below 30psi. I quickly pumped them up again to 45psi, at which pressure they’re nice and firm, but I worried if they would hold the pressure through two days of riding.
We made good time under mostly sunny skies, at first, and came to our first break at Kashima Jingu on the eastern shore of Kitaura lake. Our progress at this point was neither outstanding nor worryingly slow, but just right. Soon after this stop, though, the sky turned dark under the shadow of an enormous cloud with a black underbelly, and we worried about the weather we might encounter. For the most part, the weather held, and we soon outpaced the big scary cloud.
We continued on in hot, steamy, occasionally windy weather, until we came to a convenience store in the middle of nowhere (but not far off the path) and stopped for a lunch of Nana’s world-famous onigiri supplemented by convenience store treats such as ice cream to beat the heat.
Well, a little bit of rain after all
We felt a few sprinkles as we stood outside the convenience store scarfing onigiri, but the rain didn’t really start until we’d rounded the top of the lake and began the trek home. In the end, it could have been worse. We had about 15 minutes of steady rain, and that not heavy enough to soak us through. Just enough to legitimately say it had rained.
The rain added to the puddles we’d encountered in the stretches of gravel path. For whatever reason (the Halfakid suggested unscrupulous contractors), there were often gaps in the pavement at each inlet onto the lake, with a stretch of 100-150m of gravel, usually featuring more than a few potholes filled with muddy water. I was fine with my fat gravel tires, but Tomo and the Halfakid had a bit more challenge on their skinnies.
We took a rest in a pavilion just as the rain was letting up, and then continued on without issue (although sometimes into the wind) until we found ourselves back at the hotel. We were about half an hour behind our predicted time overall, but still in plenty of time to relax in the bath before dinner.
Same shit, different lake
On Monday morning we set off immediately after breakfast with the goal of circumnavigating Kasumigaura, a longer route of about 135km total. Mindful of Tomo’s struggles in the wind around Kitaura, we were keeping in mind a number of contingencies. The first was to take the only shortcut available, across the Kasumigaura Ohashi (bridge). Eyeballing Google Maps in the morning, we estimated this might shave 20km off the total. And we resolved to have a break every 5km, and to turn back whenever Tomo said she’d had enough.
The going was smooth, although the wind remained an issue at times. There were no gravel sections separating the bike path from the proper road as at Kitaura. We came across Kasumigaura Ohashi just a couple of kilometers after Google Maps had told us to expect it, and stopped for a brief palaver.
We had a few options at this point (apart from attempting the entire 135km route): continue on our selected path, and then turn back when we’d had enough; or crossing the bridge, and hence cutting perhaps 20km off the route, but still trying to circle the lake (and alternatively still turning back when we were tired). Tomo suggested that the Halfakid and I continue on the original route, while she crossed the bridge, knowing we would catch up with her at some point. But I said we should stick together. In the end we crossed the bridge, lopping off the northeastern lobe of the lake, and picked up the path again.
The going remained smooth, with perhaps a bit less fighting the wind. We continued to stop every 5km to rest our hands and backsides for a couple of minutes before continuing on. I was starting to feel hungry, but — thinking it was still about 10 a.m. — I didn’t say anything to the others. At the next rest break I handed out snacks I’d bought at the convenience store in the morning: baum kuchen. As she nibbled on her cake, Tomo said she was starving. I checked the time and it was already past 11:30. So we consulted Google Maps and found a convenience store just another 8km ahead, nearly to Tsuchiura. The Halfakid guided us from the path towards the shop, but we found that all the direct routes were little more than gravel-and-mud ruts for farm vehicles to pass between the fields. We eventually found paved roads, adding another kilometer to the distance traveled to get lunch.
After lunch we had another consultation. Thinking we’d shaved off around 20km by crossing Kasumigaura Ohashi, it looked like we were facing at least 65km remaining if we continued around the lake vs 45km if we turned around. Tomo didn’t take long to decide: let’s take the shorter route home! And so we doubled back.
Having made our choice we stuck with it, although it was soon obvious that Tomo was feeling quite a bit stronger after having had some food. Our average pace increased from 15km/h to nearly 20. (It’s also possible we were benefiting from a tailwind at this point.) There’s also the psychological “We’re heading home!” factor that I first saw in Tomo at the Tour de Tohoku last year, when she kicked it up to 30km/h in the final stretch. In this case, though, we still brought it back to 15km/h during the stretches where we faced a headwind.
In the final 5km, the Halfakid announced his intention to go ahead and continue past the hotel to reach a round 100km. He shot past us and was soon a dwindling red speck in the distance. I remained with Tomo, pacing her through the remaining kilometers, and we pulled up to the hotel just half an hour later than our original estimate. I touched fists with her and then said, “Actually, I … ” and she finished for me: “You want to do 100km too.” So I sped off after the Halfakid.
In the final 9km (4.5km out and back) I turned up the heat and was soon averaging 25km/h and going as high as 28. It felt good to stretch out and bear down, and I knew I could keep the pace up for the paltry few kilometers remaining. With less than 2km to go before my final return to the hotel, the Garmin beeped with a message from the Halfakid: “Where’s Guy?” Followed by a response from Nana: “Oops.” Fortunately the Garmin lets me reply (choose from a list of canned replies) without stopping, so I messaged, “Be home soon.” And then there I was, rolling up to the Halfakid who was waiting in front of the hotel for me, 101km on the clock.
Our two days of riding were blissfully trouble-free. After we assembled Tomo’s bike and tightened the Halfakid’s headset on the first day, our only issue was the slow seeping of air from my not-quite-yet-sealed tubeless tires. I took care of that in a couple of minutes at the start of each ride, and then once again on the way home during day 2.
Egrets, I’ve had a few
All along both courses we were treated Sunday and Monday to the sight of egrets — sometimes in pairs — in the rice paddies, occasionally taking wing as we sped by. Unfortunately I was never quick enough with the smartphone to catch one.
The only other (r)egret of the ride came when I checked the course again after returning home to Tokyo. By taking the Kasumigaura bridge on the second day, we’d actually shortened the route by 30km rather than our estimate of 20km. Which meant we’d have had just about the same distance to go by pressing onwards around the lake rather than doubling back as we did. Well, it gives us a reason to return to the Ring-Ring Road at a future date.