The long and winding road … to the start
I’ve been thinking and talking about the Tour de Tohoku since I first learned of it a couple of years ago, and planning on it since this May when registration had been scheduled to start. From there it was waiting for the lottery, learning that I’d registered, finding a hotel, arranging to have the bike sent, getting shinkansen tickets … and when the time came I was still jittery that I hadn’t prepared properly (quite apart from not having achieved anything like my hoped-for weight loss in the meantime).
This year there were nine routes to choose from over two days, ranging from 50km to 210km. After looking at the options, I decided on a one-day, 100km group ride around Oshika Peninsula, starting from the tsunami-ravaged town of Ishinomaki.
A big ride with untested kit
For a big ride, especially far from home, I know I should stick with proven gear and kit to avoid surprises. There were some new things I wanted to try before setting off on the Tour de Tohoku, but I didn’t get the chance after shipping off my bike early in the month. I had a new pair of pedals I wanted to try, I hadn’t ridden in the jersey, shorts and socks (although I had tried them on briefly to make sure they fit), and I hadn’t used the chamois cream (anti-chafing cream). In the end I stuck with the tried-and-true pedals, and took a chance on the flashy kit (along with newish gloves and a helmet that I’d worn on a couple of occasions). I put on the chamois cream before suiting up and immediately wondered if I’d made a bad choice: the cream was aromatic and created a tingling sensation, and I could easily imagine it growing into a burning feeling as the day wore on. I’m glad to report that the tingling (and the aroma) soon wore off, and I didn’t experience any chafing and almost zero saddle soreness during the ride.
And they’re off!
I had a very early call to tech support when I pulled Kuroko out of the shipping bag and the fork was half pushed out of the frame. The guide had said to loosen the handlebars and turn them to the side. But I hadn’t been able to make the bike fit that way, so I ended up removing the bars. When the bike was set down (or more likely, dropped) on the stem, it pushed the fork halfway out. I assembled the bike as much as I could (I was still unfamiliar with thru-bolt axles and it took me a few minutes to get them tightened up), and then carried it to the Shimano booth. The experts there set to work and almost wordlessly sorted me out in less than three minutes.
The check-in preliminaries weren’t a big deal, but I was still only half prepared, wolfing down a convenience store sandwich for breakfast, while Nana was writing my name, address and phone number on the back of my bib number before pinning it to my jersey. We were running back and forth between the registration desk and the bike stand, and I was still transferring gear from my backpack to the saddlebag, putting the number and safety stickers on my helmet and so on. Finally we heard the announcement for riders to come to the starting line and marched over with the bike and found my place. A pair of very genial guides introduced themselves, established that I was able to understand them, and gave me a few pointers about the ride together. The fellow next to me introduced himself, and then we waited for the preliminary speeches to finish and the countdown to begin.
It was at this point I realized I’d left my phone in my backpack, which I’d checked in at the registration counter. I wouldn’t be using the phone for navigation, but I did have an app from the tour organizers that not only served as a navigator but also had big, visible buttons for first aid and mechanical support. And if anything happened on the route, I wanted to be able to let Nana know. So I motioned Nana over the from sidelines and told her the problem, and she was off at a trot after making sure she knew my bib number. I waited nervously, hoping we wouldn’t start before she returned. No worries as she was back within a couple of minutes with my phone in hand.
A rolling start
The first few kilometers were mostly flat, giving us time to practice our hand signals as we rode in a group. We easily took in the few foothills that came our way, and soon found ourselves rolling into the first break stop at Onagawa station. This town was one of several that had borne the brunt of the tsunami. The train station has been rebuilt as an attraction in its own right, with a public foot bath out front and a spa on the second floor.
Soon after leaving Onagawa, though, we encountered our first climbs. The group slowed to a crawl as we wended our way up the switchback turns. As I recall, I was fine on the first few climbs (and of course the subsequent descents). But at the third big climb of the day we exceeded a 15% gradient and I had to have a break. The trailing guide stopped along with me, encouraged me to take my time, and walked together with me for a couple of hundred meters before I remounted and pushed on to the top. The rest of the group was waiting for me and greeted me enthusiastically, and soon I was enjoying a doughnut and a sports drink. Other riders compared my bike, with its fat tires and stock gearing, to their skinny jobs, while the guide kindly informed me that the next climb would be “several times longer.”
We had a few droplets of rain at this point, and it stayed with us through the next climb. It’s true that the following climb was “several times longer,” and I did fall behind the group again, but this time as the climb was much more gradual I was able to bike it for the most part. In fact, I wasn’t very far up the rise before I passed another member of our group, and the trailing guide fell back to accompany him while I soldiered on alone.
I reached the top feeling I could have continued on upwards at this rate, but still glad of the break, glad to see my group, and happy to take a self-congratulatory photo at the peak.
Our stragglers soon caught up with us, and before long we were descending quite rapidly (I hit 62km/h at one point despite the repeated hand signals to take it easy) towards lunch. As we came down from the mountain pass, the weather cleared and we rolled into the fishing port on dry roads. I’d just turned off the road and towards the promised lunch when I heard my name called, and there were Nana and her mother waving to me! They’d taken a bus to see the peninsula while I was riding, and came by chance to our lunch spot. While I sat down to a bentoh lunch of grilled whale meat, together with my cycling buddies, Nana and her mother were off to a nearby sushi counter for whale sashimi.
A bit more up-down
The guides assured us that the big hill was behind us, and there was just a bit more “up-down” on the way back to the finish. Fresh off my lunch and full of whale power, at the next climb I passed most of the group to join the two leaders. No one was more surprised than I was! I maintained that position through the next climb before once again dropping off the back as we came to still steeper challenges (even though none matched our pre-lunch climb for total height). I was only comforted in these latter climbs by the knowledge I was no longer the last rider of our group. At one point I was overtaken by another group, and the trailing guide of that group dropped back to keep me company until we topped the rise, caught up with his group, and then nearly flew past my original group where they had stopped by the roadside to wait.
I’m very happy to report that by this point, the climbing was well and truly behind us. We had one final break, with more sports drink and a couple of unagi (eel) onigiri, and then I was interviewed (in English) by some of the tour staff.
From that point back to the finish line, it was well and truly flat. Traffic replaced hills as our main concern. And at long last, we turned back up the drive into the university from whence we had departed. There was an effort to cross all in a single line, arms raised in victory, but it was a bit tight for that and a few of us dropped back a length to avoid collisions.
Wrapping it up
Nana and her mother were back at the hotel by this point, so, after being interviewed again (in Japanese this time), I returned alone to the shipping point and disassembled Kuroko. I am not sure what I did differently the second time around (apart from having a bit more experience), but I managed to get it all in the bag with the handlebars still attached. I had a couple of minutes of worry when I couldn’t locate my multitool to lower the saddle, and I finally found it on top of an adjacent shipping box (just where I’d left it).
The group guide gave us his name and invited us to follow him on facebook. I haven’t found him there yet (haven’t particularly looked), but we have connected on Strava. He was off again on Sunday for a 105km segment, starting again from Ishinomaki but heading northeast to Kesennuma (another tsunami-inundated village).
I was thoroughly impressed by the Tour de Tohoku, from the grand organization and route planning to the individual volunteers. Each time I fell behind on a climb, I was asked by each passing rider if I was in trouble. “Just taking a break,” I’d reply. The medical team cheered me from their van when I reached one hilltop, leading me to wonder if they’d been keeping an eye out for me in particular, and at one point a motorcycle rider was dispatched to inform me I was within 400m of the peak. The friendliness and encouragement extended to the volunteers who cheered us as we entered each rest area, served us water and sports drink and rice and whale, told us stories of the local destruction from the earthquake and tsunami, and cheered us on our way again as we departed. Finally there were the locals turning out every few hundred meters along the road to wave flags and cheer as we passed.
A vertical mile
There was some disagreement among various systems on the amount of climbing we did over the course. Yahoo’s LatLongLab said 1,519m, Strava said 1,845m, and Garmin put it at 2,055m. I don’t know why there’s so much discrepancy between the three, but I’m claiming a vertical mile. (The LatLongLab map was made by the tour organizers, while the Strava and Garmin results are based on the same GPS data from my Garmin during the actual ride.)
While the big hill in the middle looks bad, it was actually a pretty tame climb compared to some of the much steeper, but shorter, climbs that came before and after. Strava lists three of the smaller climbs (such as an 89m climb over 0.89km, for a 10% grade) as Category 4’s, while the big climb in the middle was gentle enough that it’s not rated. From the Strava data, I see it as a 262m climb over 7.4km (including a dip near the top) for an average 3.5% gradient. Or measuring from the bottom to the first peak, a 228m climb over 4.9km for an average 4.4% rise.