Little did I expect when I picked up a graphic novel about the invention of the computer to find a strong parallel to my experience riding Land’s End to John o’ Groats. But there it is, in the source material included at the end of the book:
Are you at Ashley? And is it still convenient with all your other arrangements that I should join you there?—and will next Wednesday or next Thursday or any other day suit you: and shall I leave the iron-shod road at Thornton or at Bridgewater …
Following two spectacular flats in as many weekends, I knew it was time for the René Herse tires to go — or at least to spend some time on the floor of the Workshop in the Sky while I thought about alternatives. Despite a lot of effort, I’d never really solved the issue of the weeping sidewalls. And then, a couple of weekends ago on a ride with Fearless Leader Joe, with the front tire very low on pressure, I suffered a “burp” as I rounded a sharp turn and the tire actually came off the rim with a splash of latex sealant. Last weekend, just as we were riding into Okutama Station, a spoke snapped and tore through the rim tape, rapidly deflating the tire.
The remedy on the spot was the same in both cases: clean up the remaining sealant; remove the valve from the rim; insert an inner tube (thoughtfully stashed in my saddle bag in both cases); pump it up and then go on my way.
In neither case did the sealant do what it was supposed to: prevent the leaking air (or at least seal it up after the fact). At Okutama I wasted only a few seconds trying to reinflate the tire, hoping the sealant would do its job, before discovering the broken spoke.
After the burping incident, I ordered a pair of new tires: Panaracer GravelKing SS. These are very similar to the René Herse, including the weight. But none of the reviews I’ve seen have mentioned any issue with weeping sidewalls. Once they’re on, they’re on good.
Next, after the broken spoke incident, I decided it was time to replace the rear hub. This is the second broken spoke since I rebuilt the wheel following the infamous chain in the spokes incident during the ill-starred Lejog attempt. Although an inspection of the hub showed that none of the remaining damage was likely to cause spoke breakage, I decided I’d had enough. After checking prices and seeing it would cost me as much to buy a hub and spokes and do the job myself as to buy a new wheel, I ordered a replacement wheel from the maker.
With the new wheel and new tires in hand, I set about the ol’ switcheroo. I tried setting up the new tires as tubeless, but after three attempts at getting the rear tire seated with no luck, I gave up for the moment and inserted the inner tube. Along the way I installed the brake disc and the cogs (after a thorough cleaning).
For the front, I simply replaced the René Herse tire with the Panaracer — no cogs or brake disc change required. After mounting the wheels back on the bike and adjusting the brakes, I was done for the day.
I haven’t given up on tubeless quite yet. Despite the very sticky, sloppy experience of the past two weekends, I’d like to try again with the new tires. It simply awaits a time when it’s a bit less cold and windy on the balcony and I have more patience for repeated attempts to get the tires to seat tubelessly.
Tomo, the Halfakid and I have been eager to reprise our Okutama ride, hoping for better weather. Last year we traveled to Miura Kaigan instead, a similar distance but what turned out to be a much less satisfactory ride as it was nearly all urban roadway.
Last month we agreed on the dates and Nana started looking for hotels. We waited a bit too long as we’d chosen a three-day weekend during the fall colors season and most places were booked full. Finally Nana found a minshuku about 3km from Okutama Station, and we finalized our plans. All that remained was to watch the forecast, which gradually changed from rainy to sunny as the date approached.
Saturday dawned clear and warm, but very windy. Tomo had the furthest to come to our agreed meeting spot at Futako Tamagawa, and set out at 7:40 for our 10 a.m. rendezvous. But we had a surprise when the Halfakid messaged at 8 a.m. from Futako, asking where we were! His mistake, and as there were no cafés open nearby until 10, he set off on a 40km round-trip to Haneda while he was waiting!
I finally set out at 9 a.m. with bags packed and a saddlebag full of Nana’s world-famous onigiri. When I arrived at Futako just before 10, the others were ready and waiting.
Immediately after departure we were beset by the strong wind and crept along at a fraction of our usual pace, occasionally fighting gusts that nearly knocked us off the path. We were somewhat compensated for this by a glorious view of Mt. Fuji as we crossed the Tamagawa on the Tamasuido Bridge, and soon came to our first break at Nishigawara Park. We prayed we might be spared the wind as we progressed further up the river, but alas, it was not to be. The wind remained … not with us, but against us until we reached our lunch spot at Hamura at 1:30. (We’d arrived there before noon on our previous trip to Okutama.)
On the road, out of the wind
After finishing our kombu onigiri and other noshes, we continued on the roadway. Immediately we left behind most of the wind — in exchange for a healthy dose of traffic, of course. The road started rising, however gradually, from this point, but we were able to pick up the pace somewhat in the still air, and after making sure that Tomo was on her smaller chainring (avoiding the mistake of our first ride up to Okutama where she was on the larger chainring the entire time). As the navigator and in the lead, I tried to set a steady, unchallenging pace. I’d been concerned that with the three-day weekend and the hotels being fully booked that we’d be in the thick of traffic the entire way, but it wasn’t bad for the most part. We simply soldiered on to our goal.
Okutama Station in the dark
We finally arrived at the hotel just before 4 p.m. and quickly took stock of our situation. We still had daylight, but it was waning fast. We knew it was another 3km to Okutama Station, with some up-down and a few tunnels to negotiate. We decided to go for it. Nana messaged to ask where we were and I replied, “Right outside.” Then explained we were going on to the station and should be back within about 45 minutes. We’d included in that estimate some time to pick up snacks and — if necessary — beer and other drinks, as the convenience store just outside the hotel was permanently closed. Lights on, we continued on our way.
The first tunnel came and went with no trouble. On the second tunnel, I decided to take the narrow road bypassing it to the left. This turned out to be a good decision as there was a fairly substantial climb though the tunnel. After a bit more up-down and another tunnel that was no trouble, we came to the final tunnel before the station: a 605m monster with a slight rise and a couple of bends. As we ground our way through the tunnel in the dark, we lived in dread of the vehicles overtaking us at considerable speed.
We came through without incident, and I flew down the slope towards the station. Just a couple of dozen meters before the crossing, I heard a loud pop and then a hissing as my rear tire deflated and sealant spewed in every direction. I quickly dismounted and signaled for the Halfakid and Tomo to go on ahead to the station, while I came along behind, walking the limping Kuroko.
What would Okutama be without mechanicals?
Or, indeed, any of Guy Jean’s wonderful adventures? After we took a quick photo of our arrival at the station, I set about to assess the damage to Kuroko’s rear tire and to see if the sealant would sort it out. Alas, the cause soon became apparent: a broken spoke, which was no doubt poking through the rim tape and opening up a hole that the sealant couldn’t gum over. There was no choice but to put in an inner tube that I’d brought along for just such an emergency (after mopping up most of the sealant and pouring the rest out onto the pavement of the station’s parking lot). While I worked, Tomo and the Halfakid apprised Nana (waiting back at the hotel with her mother) of our predicament, and Tomo assisted my efforts by turning her bike headlight onto the repair job.
I tried without success to remove the broken spoke. (I later looked up the multi-tool that I carry and discovered where the spoke wrench is hidden.) So, as I’d done on a similar occasion in England, I just wrapped the broken spoke about its neighbors to prevent it tangling with the derailleur or brakes. This time, with just the one broken spoke, the wheel was still mostly true and it was rideable — so long as I didn’t break any more!
With the inner tube in place and the Halfakid manning the pump, we soon had a fully inflated tire. I did my best to clean up (in addition to the latex, there was now road grit stuck to everything) and we mounted up in the dark to make our way back to the hotel. The roads were pitch black in places, but the tunnels that were frighteningly uphill on our way into the station were now downhill, and we flew along.
We arrived back at the hotel to find Nana waiting for us in the parking lot. It was the ladies’ turn in the bath so the Halfakid and I settled into our room with a can of beer each and plugged in our various devices to charge while we discussed the next day’s strategy.
Compared to the seized wheel bearings Ol’ Paint had suffered on our previous Okutama ride, a flat tire was no big deal — again, so long as I didn’t lose any more spokes on the way.
The minshuku dinner was delicious and made up for some of the shortcomings of the hotel, such as the single bath (with 90-minute intervals for each sex) with a single shower head. After dinner we laid out our futons and turned on the heater, and I was soon asleep.
Day 2: the Dam!
Sunday morning we were all up early, and converged on the breakfast hall the moment it opened. As soon as we’d filled up on fish and rice, the Halfakid and I set off to climb up to the dam while Tomo remained to soak once more in the bath with the other ladies.
I’d been over the map and Google street view time and again for the climb up from Okutama Station to the Ogouchi Dam at Okutama Lake, and in the spring I’d driven it with Nana on a day trip. What I’d seen on the map and remembered from the driving indicated it would be a rather stiff climb with some scarily narrow tunnels en route. But I also remembered passing some cyclists along the way and seeing more at the top, including a couple of preteens, and so I knew the route was rideable.
The Halfakid and I made quick progress back to Okutama Station, electing for the sidewalk this time on the scarily long uphill tunnel. We arrived at the crossing (where I’d had the flat the night before) and marked the time at 8:33. From that point it was climb, and climb we did. I was not shy about shifting to the lower, and then the lowest gear and taking my time, saving my energy for the top. But the first few kilometers were not bad, with gradual (if long) rises, and occasional breaks and even brief descents. We passed over a couple of bridges and then rounded a corner into the first of seven tunnels. Traffic was still light at this point, for which I was thankful. The Halfakid plodded along behind me, patiently calling out encouragement as we continued upwards.
Along one straight and fairly flat stretch, we saw a monkey slowly ambling across the road. Our initial thought was, “That’s a chunky monkey!” But as we came closer we saw it was a mother, carrying a baby. She quickly reached the opposite side of the road and started scaling the erosion fence. A few meters farther on, another monkey emerged from the side of the road and crossed in front of us. It was quite a close-up view of wildlife, and just a bit worrisome as we’ve heard stories of feral monkeys attacking people. Happily, the second monkey heard or saw us coming and fled to the opposite side of the road.
Traffic began to pick up as we neared the halfway point of our climb, dominated by motorcycles and groups of sports cars as riders and drivers alike were eager to prove their cornering skills away from the prying eyes of policemen. But nearly all were polite to us, hanging back when needed and then giving us wide berth as they passed.
More tunnels came and went, and the gradient of the climb picked up a bit. I was counting tunnels as we passed through. We’d done six and I was pretty sure there was just one more when the road steepened again to a grade of 5 or 6 percent and maintained that. We came straight into the final tunnel, one of 400-some meters at pretty much the same rate of climbing, and then out the other side into a turn. The Halfakid passed me at this point and I could see him rounding the curve ahead of me as we finally came into view of the dam on our left and I knew it was a matter of a few hundred meters more. Finally I rounded the corner to find the expected sign to turn off for the dam, and the Halfakid was lazily turning circles in a parking lot there while waiting for me. A final burst of climbing brought us up to the lake and the top of the dam at 9:02, almost exactly 30 minutes since we’d left the station.
It had been less than 8C when we’d set out from the hotel in the morning and we were dressed for that. Arriving at the dam, though, we were both covered in sweat. The Halfakid removed his innermost shirt, but I had only the clothes on my back (having left my bag at the hotel for our eventual return). I also knew that, hot as we were at the moment, we’d cool off quickly on the descent. After snapping a couple of photos and letting the ladies know we were on the way, we took the plunge.
As can be expected, the return went a bit more quickly. I’d worried we’d have traffic lining up behind us as we entered each tunnel, and told the Halfakid to expect we might pull over to let the vehicles pass, but we were going fast enough that we didn’t even have time to think about stopping. A few vehicles did pass us, typically in the longer straight tunnels, but thankfully traffic was still light. I braked on a few occasions when there was a blind curve, and once coming through a straight tunnel that was paved with stripes of red paint that set up a hammering in my skull as we flew over them.
We came off the mountain and crossed the first of two bridges back into town. There was a big “30” painted on the road surface and I risked a glance at the Garmin: we were clocking 43kph at the time (and, as the Halfakid points out, the cars passing us were going about 70). That was certainly a bit faster than the 7-8kph at which we had climbed the last bits.
We arrived back at the hotel in less than half the time it took us to mount up to the dam. Tomo, Nana and her mother were waiting for us in the parking lot. I picked up my bag and we mounted up. Well, the Halfakid rode up the steep drive from the hotel back to street level, while Tomo and I pushed our bikes. We took a few snaps and checked traffic and then we were off.
Well, I was off, anyway. The moment I’d crossed the busy street I heard Nana’s mother shout, “Watch out!” I turned to see Tomo flat on her side next to her bike. Fortunately she was still in the hotel drive at this point and had not entered the roadway. She explained to me later, “I didn’t realize I was in the lowest gear, so I was expecting a lot more resistance when I stepped down on the pedal. As a result I lost my balance.” She was fine apart from a small tear in her tights and a corresponding scrape on her knee, and the bike came through with just a small tear in the handlebar tape.
The return was primarily downhill and the weather was once again fine — a very nice improvement from the rain we’d encountered on our previous return from Okutama. After a couple of stops at convenience stores along the way, we arrived at Hamura at 11:30 for lunch.
Almost as soon as we were back on the river, though, we were in the wind again. After fighting a headwind all Saturday, would we have luck and get a tailwind? The gods were not so merciful. A strong crosswind buffeted us once again, at times coming from ahead and only occasionally from behind. Once again our pace slowed to a crawl. We found ourselves taking breaks every 5km as the slow pace exaggerated pains in our hands and backsides. Any fantasies we’d entertained about an early return quickly evaporated.
We finally crawled into Futako Tamagawa about 3:20. We debated about who would get home first. The Halfakid and I had nearly the same distance to go, in opposite directions. He had some more up-down on the way home, but I had the initial climb out of the Tamagawa valley. As I reminded the Halfakid, I always take a break at the top of the climb before continuing home. Tomo again had the longest way to go, and we knew she was the most tired of us.
With a round of bowing and thanks and promises to schedule another ride again soon, we went our separate ways. I messaged Nana from the top of the climb to expect me in about an hour, and I set off back through the city. I’d kept my GPS on the navigation view (although I well knew the way) just so I wouldn’t be constantly checking my average speed. Without the wind, though, I was certainly riding faster than I had since our descent from the heights of Okutama. I finally rolled into home at 4:26, four minutes before I’d told Nana to expect me. I checked our message group and saw that the Halfakid had arrived 18 minutes before me — the time I’d rested at the top of the climb and then some.
Nana prepared a bath for me and I climbed in with a cold beer and soaked away my aches. Soon we were sitting down to dinner and we had the same question: Where is Tomo? She’d messaged at 5 that she was more than halfway home from Futako, but she was far behind the expected arrival. She finally messaged at 6:20 that she was home, after stopping to get photos of Tokyo Tower and the Rainbow Bridge.
Here’s the spoke that caused all the trouble, after I’d bent it out of the way: