300 km in a day around Mt Fuji on a Bike Friday

In the evening of last Sunday I returned from my first brevet ride, a long distance cycling event. I was sunburnt, exhausted and dead tired. The event was BRM519 NishiTokyo 300 km Fuji, a 300 km brevet around Mt Fuji staged by Audax Japan NishiTokyo. It was quite a mountainous course, with 2800 m (9200 ft) of climbing (see map). Also participating was my friend Jose, but we rode separately for most of the course because he is faster. In preparation for this event I had done three training rides (227 km, 200 km and 235 km) since March that followed at least part of the route, one of them with Jose, whose company and advice has been invaluable.

From Machida in western Tokyo we rode down to Enoshima on the Pacific coast, followed the coast to Odawara and climbed up to Gotemba. From there we rode down to the coast near Numazu, followed the coast to Fujikawa, then headed north on a long climb on the extended slopes on the west side of Mt Fuji. From over 1100 m on the NW of Fuji the road descends to Fujiyoshida and further down to Tsuru. The final stretch follows mountainous R35 to Sagamiko (extremely steep in places but great descents) and climbs over Otarumi Toge on R20 near Mt Takao (which seems trivial after all the previous climbing).

Though the 15 km/h minimum pace implied by the 20 hour time limit may seem modest, it includes all food and sleep breaks and a course with plenty of climbing. The people who design these courses like back roads and hills. Some of the R35 climbs I was crawling up at 6.5 km/h in my granny gear. You go uphill for 2 hours before Gotemba and 4 hours solid at Mt Fuji, which you can never make up on faster downhills from there. The 22:00 start means the first 6 1/2 hours are at night, so not only do you need proper lights, you also lost a night of sleep.

Lack of sleep proved to be much more of a challenge than distance or elevation. If there was one thing I’d do differently next time, it would be to make sure I get a good few hours sleep during daytime before the night time start. I had meant to do that, but instead spent that time running around looking for extra lights, as I found out from Jose that I needed two lights at the front and two at the rear (one of which could be on the helmet). The first rear light I bought didn’t work when I tried it at home, so I returned it and got a another and finally had only napped 20 minutes before I took the train to Machida.

At the brevet reception:

People there were very friendly, though they were quite surprised I wanted to ride the brevet on a small wheeled folding bike. 80 people had signed up for the ride. I received my brevet card and instructions on how to gather receipts at the unmanned checkpoints (PC = point de contrôle).

After a group briefing each bike and rider was checked to make sure we met all the conditions about lights, bells, reflective clothing, etc. Then we were off into the night.

Jose and I were riding together for the first couple of km, but separated soon when I stopped to remove a layer as I was warming up. There were plenty of fellow riders for following a lead rider. With the pace at which we were going towards the coast (except for traffic lights), I was feeling like I was on the Enoshima Express train 🙂 We got there a little before midnight. I got my brevet card signed (this was the only manned checkpoint) and I refilled my water bottles at the public toilet where PC1 was located, then headed off with Jose and another rider after a few minutes. I soon dropped off again and rode by myself until other riders came along around 10 km before Odawara, where PC2 was located.

PC2-PC4 were unmanned, that means they were convenience stores where you buy some food or drink, making sure to keep the receipt to prove when you were there. Nevertheless the ride organisers came by car to join us at each of these stops, to check everyone was doing OK and to offer encouragement.

From Odawara the climb to Gotemba starts very gentle, but continues for 30 km for an altitude gain of 460 m. I was lucky to end up riding in a group of 5 that set a good pace I could keep up with. As the route got steeper though, I had to work harder and harder and drafting made less difference, so I waived the rider behind me to pass and continued on my own. Somewhere along the way I came across Jose, who was just about to lie down and take a nap in a bus shelter. As it got colder during the night I put on my trousers from my rain gear.

Somewhere along the 25 km route from Gotemba to the coast the sun came up and I could see Mt Fuji:

I led another rider at a good speed, but was feeling the lack of sleep as I was cycling along the coast. We crossed Fuji river and headed up inland towards the next unmanned checkpoint (PC3).

A fellow brevet rider at PC3:

Before the longest climb:

The 1100 m climb from sea level, starting at about the halfway point of the 300 km up to the pass above Lake Motosu was the hardest part of the ride. The scenery is beautiful though, with many dairy farms. The smell of cow dung reminded me of my home village 🙂

Lake Motosu from the pass:

During the climb I got so sleepy, I had to find a spot to lie down and catch a nap (a slab of concrete next to a rice paddy, with my rinko bag as a pillow), as I felt it wasn’t safe to continue in my state. The same thing happened again on R35 between Tsuru and Sagamiko. I had been 1 1/2 hours ahead of the minimum pace of 15 km/h at PC2 before Mt Fuji, but after those naps didn’t know if I would still make the time limit until almost the very end, when I fought traffic in Machida to make it back by 18:00.

I was so glad when I got back safely and it was all over. I had done well with my training, with eating and drinking and with navigation, but managing naps is definitely something I’ll need to learn if I am to ride brevets again.

I am also looking forward to trying proper cycling shorts which I’ve got on order. Cotton underwear rubbing against certain parts of the male anatomy did become irritating towards the end of the ride. Also, I’ll need something other than a back pack for my stuff, because my shoulders got itchy from the straps, especially with the sweat in warm weather.

They say any brevet over 200 km isn’t much fun and they’re probably right, unless you’re a bit of a masochist. Riding brevets adds a number of challenges beyond personal long distance rides, such as managing time (including sleeping time). It tests planning and self discipline as much as cycling skills. It does give you an excuse for a bunch of long training rides in the mountains. On the brevet itself you’ll meet some extremely nice people who enjoy cycling very, very much. The brevet was almost as hard as my first climb of Mt Fuji last year and “fun” is maybe not the right word to describe it, yet I would definitely recommend giving it a try at least once if you like long rides at a pace that mere mortals can still train for.


235 km a day on my Bike Friday

A couple of weeks ago I did my longest ride on the Bike Friday yet – 235 km in a day, across the mountains west of Tokyo to a lake near Mt Fuji during the cherry blossom (sakura) season. This was part of my training for a 300 km brevet ride coming up this month. It was a beautiful ride, one of my most enjoyable so far.

Sakura (cherry blossoms) on route 413:

It took me about 16 hours, of which 14 hours were moving time. I had left home at 05:20 and was back in Tokyo at 21:20 (9:20pm). My Pocket Rocket has a Shimano hub dynamo and a Lumotec IQ Cyo headlamp which provided plenty of light on the last stretch after sunset.

Here is my route. I started from my house in Tokyo after sunrise and cycled out to the mountains some 40 km away, then followed Route 413 up a mountain valley and over a pass over 1100 m (3600 ft) high. I was climbing from virtually sea level (45 m or 150 ft) to 1.1 km high. I was cycling almost continually uphill for the first 96 km (60 miles). After 7 hours (including quite a number of brief stops for food, rest and pictures) I reached the highest pass.

More sakura:

I always want to see the remaining distance:

The exit of the tunnel at the end of The Longest Climb: It’s all downhill from here… NOT!

The shores of Lake Yamanaka at the foot of Mt Fuji, over 900 m (3000 ft) above sea level:

It can be surprizingly difficult to sea Mt Fuji (3776 m high) from just a few km away because of its frequent cloud cover. I cycled 235 km and all I saw of Fuji is this (its foot):

Almost home – at the top of the Mt Takao pass:

The humble Bike Friday Pocket Rocket:

and its crazy rider:

The ABC of distance riding: Always Be Consuming!

There is nothing exceptional about cycling this kind of distance. The key is eating and drinking sufficiently. Most people who first try long distances become exhausted not because of insufficient training, but because they simply eat and drink too little. The energy reserves in your body only last so long. Three meals a day will not cover the continuous energy use of long distance riding. You need to consume about 200-300 kcal per hour and sufficient liquids.

I carried water in two bottle holders, which I refilled whenever I could. Throughout the day I ate: 7 bananas, 6 raisin bread rolls, 360 g of yoghurt, a slice of pizza and several other pieces of bread. I drank about 4 litres of water, orange juice, cocoa, yoghurt drink and sports drink. Don’t worry too much about putting on weight while burning 6500 kcal. I am 10 kg (22 lbs) lighter now than I was the year before I got the bike. I’ve been dropping about one kg a month since I got the bike.

Stick to a speed you can sustain. I am not a fast rider, doing mostly 23-25 km/h on the flat (about 15 mph), with down to as little as 9 km/h (6 mph) on steep climbs, but that doesn’t stop me from going out to see nature, lots of it. I don’t go out there to set speed records, but to see the country, smell the trees and the ocean, view the rivers and mountains and bring back some pictures. Why settle for 3-6 hours when I can enjoy it the whole day?

Long rides on a folding bike

I did this 235 km ride a little over half a year after getting the Pocket Rocket, my first road bike in over 30 years. Some people are surprised that I do these rides on a folding bike. I usually point out that my house is small and a bike with small wheels is easier to store indoors. This is not just my touring bike but also my shopping bike. Almost daily I cycle to shops and carry my groceries home in a back pack. Other people may have a garage with several different bikes for different purposes, but I don’t.

The other part of the answer is that the Bike Friday is no ordinary folding bike. It has the geometry of a regular road bike and it rides like one, but also happens to fold and can even be packed into a regular size suitcase (which I’ve not done yet). It may not fold quite as compactly or as quickly as say a Brompton or Bike Friday’s smaller Tikit, bikes optimized for intermodal commuting, but it is much more suitable for going fast and far. Drop handles offer many different hand positions, which keeps your arms and back comfortable for longer. The wide range gearing with triple chain rings on the front and a 9 speed cassette at the back make it possible to climb steep mountains without too much strain on my knees but still go fast elsewhere. I love my Brooks leather saddle which keeps my bottom happy even after a whole day on the bike.

Ultimately however, it is not about the bike, but about you. If you want to ride more and further, you can do it on almost any bike. A bicycle is a tool. I’ve done a couple of 50 km rides on shopping bikes. When my son was still in Junior High School he once went on a 110 km trip (Yokohama to Enoshima and back) with some friends on a single speed folder. If you have a nice bike, you are more likely to ride it more often because it’s more enjoyable, but whether you ride it at all is still up to you. The type of bike makes no difference if you’re too lazy to ride, as I became once I got into cars, back in my 20s.

If you like longer rides, give them a try on whatever bike you have. If you find that you enjoy these tours and would like a more suitable bike, get a good one and you will not regret it.

Japan without nuclear power

Since last weekend, Japan is without a single nuclear power station feeding power into the grid, the first time in 42 years. All 50 nuclear power stations are currently off-line (this count does not include the 4 wrecked reactors in Fukushima I, which are no longer officially counted — it used to be 54 nuclear power stations).

Some of these power stations were shut down because of problems after the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Others were taken offline one by one for routine inspections and maintenance but have not been started up again, which would only happen with the consent of nearby local governments. That consent has not been forthcoming.

Electrical utilities and the government are raising concerns about a power shortage when the summer heat sets in, which usually results in peak usage for air conditioners. Critics of nuclear power see an opportunity for a quick exit from nuclear power. Others are concerned that if the government rushes to bring power stations back online before the summer without safety upgrades and a change in the regulatory regime, a unique chance to prevent the next nuclear disaster will be squandered. If upgrades and reforms don’t happen when the memory of Fukushima is still relatively fresh, what’s the chance of it happening a few years down the road?

The utility companies are facing high costs from buying more fossil fuels for gas and oil fired thermal power stations to cover the demand; restarting the nuclear power stations would keep those costs in check. But that is only part of the reason they are keen on a restart. The sooner they can return to the pre-Fukushima state of power generation, the less leverage governments and the public have for making them accept new rules, such as retrofitting filters for emergency venting systems or a permanent shutdown of the oldest and seismically most vulnerable stations. Because of this it’s in the interest of the utilities to paint as bleak a picture of the situation as possible. Japan would be smart to proceed cautiously and not miss a unique chance to fix the problems that are the root cause of the Fukushima disaster and of disasters still waiting to happen.