Strava Cycling Climbing Challenges

Strava is a popular service for logging bike rides and other activities, which provides a way of comparing one’s achievements with those of other cyclists and runners. Competition is a powerful stimulant and a main driver behind the success of the service. Monthly “challenges”, such as a Gran Fondo (a ride of at least 100 or 130 km, depending on the time of the year) or a monthly cumulative distance or elevation gain challenge, are particularly popular on Strava.

While I regularly participate in the Cycling Distance and Gran Fondo Challenge, I do not normally sign up for the Cycling Climbing Challenge, which is meant to encourage you do ride hilly courses. I love hilly courses. In fact, most of my weekend rides are hilly, usually going from close to sea level to over 900 m and back.

Last year I averaged one century ride (at least 160.9 km / 100 miles) about every other week, so the Gran Fondo challenge is not really that much of a challenge for me. My typical centuries are about 170-190 km with 1800-2100 m of elevation gain. Yet at 7500 to 8000 m the goal for the Cycling Climbing Challenge is set so high, I could do a hilly century ride four Saturdays in a row and still miss the climbing goal. So how do other people, who do not ride 170 km into the hills every other weekend complete the climbing challenge?

I think the Strava climbing goals are designed for people who record their rides with phones or other GPS devices that rely only on satellite data for elevation. GPS-based elevation data is much less precise than lattitude-longitude data. Other popular GPS units like the Garmin Edge 1000, Garmin Edge 520 (or my o_synce Navi2coach) use a barometer for more precise elevation tracking. The problem with GPS-based elevation is that it’s noisy, it will go up and down pretty randomly but all those little ups will be added up by Strava, resulting in a considerably inflated climbing total. If you’re using a GPS device measuring relatively accurate barometric elevation, you can’t really compete against all that noisy data 🙁

I could confirm this in group rides with other people who were using mix of equipment, where I had a chance to compare the posted stats on Strava afterwards. The iPhone or Android-app recorded totals were often 50-100% higher than the Garmin-recorded totals, for one and the same course.

Here is one random example of 4 people doing the same course up a volcano in Tenerife, Gran Canria yesterday. Note, this not my ride, I just randomly stumbled on it while looking at high scorers in the March Cycling Climbing Challenge on the Strava website. Two of these cyclists were using the Strava iPhone app, the other two were using a Garmin Edge 520:

Strava iPhone App:

Strava iPhone App:

Garmin Edge 520:

Garmin Edge 520:

As you can see, the two cyclists using the phone app posted almost double the total climbing for the course as the Garmin users, despite riding the very same roads and posting the same elevation profile for the activity (i.e. no hill repeats).

Based on evidence like that, I don’t think elevation gain competitions on Strava are happening on a level playing field! 😉

2018BRM120 Miura Peninsula

I rode my third century of January and my first randonnée of the year on Sunday. After completing the 204 km ride (finished in 12:04) I rode home, for a total distance of 233 km. I had done the same event in 2015 – with only minor route changes – and almost the same time (12:06).

The main difference was that on Sunday it was not quite as chilly. Perhaps that was because it was overcast, which preserved more heat from the day before than if the night sky had been clear. It also meant that the sun wasn’t in our faces (and the faces of drivers coming up behind us) when we cycled towards Kawasaki around sunrise. I felt a lot safer because of that.

This brevet is the flattest by far of any events that AJ NishiTokyo (my local club) organizes. On the other hand, the first third and the last quarter had a fair number of traffic lights. Still, there was less pressure to make closing times than on any other brevet I rode.

I had to be at the start by about 5:20 to pick up the brevet card and attend the safety briefing, so the night before I rode 30 km from my home to a cheap hotel near the start where I spent the night. This I could still get almost 7 hours of sleep. Perhaps I’m getting soft in my old age 🙂

After passing by the Yokohama harbour near Chinatown, I took the optional route over the hills. This is where a lot of foreigners set up their homes when Japan opened to the world after the arrival of Commodore Perry’s Black Ships. On the Yamate district up on a hill you see many western style villas, a great view of the harbour and the historic Foreign Cemetery.

From Kawasaki to Yokohama down to Yokosuka the roads were urban, with traffic lights slowing you down. Yokosuka is home to the US Seventh Fleet. Not far from it is where William Adams (the Miura Anjin of James Clavell’s “Shogun”) had his fief back in the 1600s. The peninsula turns rural thereafter.

It was too overcast to see the mountains of Boso peninsula in Chiba, on the opposite side of the mouth of Tokyo bay. At Kurihama I passed Perry Park, a memorial to Commodore Perry who landed here in July 1853.

Following the coastline the route passed through seaside towns and fishing villages. Miura peninsula is one of the vegetable gardens of Tokyo, with mainly cabbage and daikon (radish) being grown.

After PC2 in the southwest corner of the peninsula, the route headed up the west coast. This is my favourite part, particularly in the late afternoon, with the sunlight reflected in the ocean, or when it’s cloudy and the sky can be very atmospheric. We passed the Imperial villa at Hayama. Emperor Yoshihito, father of WW2-era emperor Hirohito, died here in 1926.

A couple of km to the north we passed by Kamakura, one of the 4 historic capitals of Japan (Kyoto, Nara, Kamakura and Edo/Tokyo). In summer it’s popular for its beach, but even in winter there are many windsurfers (see picture at the top).

The next major town was Enoshima, which offers great views of Mt Fuji when it’s sunny, but not that day. Before the mouth of the Sagami river we turned inland, heading up north to loop back to the start. About 5 km later we reached PC3, that final control before the goal.

By this time I was about 1:15 ahead of closing time, so I could have made it to the goal even with an average of 10 km/h. I still kept up the speed to cover as much distance as possible before the sun went down. I only rode about the last hour in darkness, plus the ride home after the event.

Due to business travel my February distance will be lower than my January distance, but I’ll try to get one century in on the first February weekend, weather permitting. Today it’s snowing here in Tokyo. Usually we only have a couple of days of snow a year and this makes CaM a lot easier here than in many other parts of the planet.

Twenty-Seven Centuries in one Year

By the end of this year I will have cycled just over 8,000 km, slightly less than in the last couple of years (I cycled about 9,000 km in 2013, 2014 and 2016 and topped 10,000 km in 2015).

At the same time, the number of century rides (rides of at least 160.9 km aka 100 miles in one day) has actually gone up. In 2012, my first season of century rides, I completed 11 of them. Both in 2013 and 2014 I rode 21. The next two years I managed 22 each. This year, with one week left to the end of the year, the total came to 27 centuries.

The biggest difference has been that I didn’t participate in any 400 or 600 km brevets this year due to my business travel schedule. Both in 2015 and 2016 I had signed up for one 400 km brevet (which I finished) and one 600 km (which I DNF’ed). Both years I also pre-rode the 400 km route on a personal long distance ride. So I missed some distance overall, but most months I managed to ride 2 or 3 centuries. It’s all about being consistent.

With my December rides I have extended my “A Century A Month” streak to 5 years and 4 months. To ensure that I can keep this up, I usually do a long ride on the first weekend of each calendar month. That way, if anything comes up later in the month, such as a typhoon hitting Japan or me having to travel abroad, I won’t have an issue.

One of the most important factors no doubt is to avoid injury. Many of my friends have been involved in road accidents. A broken collarbone or other severe injury could put you out of action for weeks or months. Any kind of road sport has risks, but I try to limit my exposure. I am not a very ambitious descender because with anything that happens at high speed, the negative effects will be magnified. I am not ambitious when cycling in a city either. Where I work hardest is on climbs, because I need to 🙂

I have been very pleased with my Elephant Bikes National Forest Explorer. Last year I converted it to 11 speed with a Sugino “compact plus” double crank and hydraulic brakes. It has been fun to ride and extremely reliable. The ride comfort from the 42 mm Compass tires is terrific and I have been without puncture for 20 months now. I still ride my Bike Friday Pocket Rocket as well and had its rear converted to a disc brake a couple of months ago.

The main attraction of long rides to me is the views I come across, at all times of day, in all kinds of weather and in all four seasons. I ride to see things, by myself or with friends.

Here are some pictures from one year of cycling:

January: BRM107 by Audax Japan Kanagawa – Zushi-Izukogen-Zushi 200 km

January: Doshi village on my Bike Friday

February: Boso Peninsula via Kurihama Ferry across Tokyo Bay (cycling to and from Miura peninsula)

March: Mt Dodaira in Saitama, visiting the observatory

March: BRM318 in West Izu, the hardest 200 km brevet I ever rode

April: BRM408 in Yamanashi, the 3rd 200 km brevet this year

May: Ome Temple Loop, a very mountainous course in Saitama that I normally only do once a year. I did it twice this year 🙂

May: BRM520 around Mt Fuji — my fastest ever finishing time on this 300 km brevet

June: Doshi village for coffee and cresson cake.

July: Some hydrangea blossoms at a mountain ride in Hinohara with friends.

July: Tokyo/sea level – Mt Fuji 5th stage/2300 m – Odawara/sea level (first time in 4 years that I rode this course again)

August: First ride on Arima Toge in Saitama

September: First ride on Nokogiri Toge

October: A hunting falcon at Lake Okutama

November: Annual Chichibu Foliage Ride

December: West Izu Century (view from Kumomi Onsen towards Mt Fuji, 72 km away)

Downloading routes from RouteLabo (Yahoo LatLongLab)

Most of the brevets I ride are with AJ NishiTokyo, a randonneuring club based in the Machida/Sagamihara area. One thing I like about their rides is that they provide a link to a RouteLabo page for each event (RouteLabo is an online map service run by Yahoo Japan). This page shows a map of the course as well as download links for KML, GPX and TCX files of the course. By copying these files to your GPS device (Garmin or other) or by uploading a KML file to Google “My Maps” for your smartphone, you can almost completely do away with the need for paper cue sheets. I navigate all my brevets and many of my personal rides by following a “breadcrumb trail” on the screen of my GPS unit.

Unfortunately other clubs often only provide a map without any download option, like this Randonneurs Tokyo 2018 BRM421 Tokyo 600 Lake Hamana (BRM421東京600浜名湖鰻) page:

This does not help you much on the road. Without a link to the full RouteLabo page with download links, there’s no obvious way to obtain a GPX or KML file. You are still expected to navigate via printed turn instruction on a paper cue sheet, which I find cumbersome and error-prone.

However, there is a way!

The web page uses some Javascript code to display the map off the RouteLabo website, including a magic value that identifies the particular course to be shown. To see this value, view the source code of the page. This step varies by browser and operating system. On Chrome under MS Windows, Ctrl+U will show the source code, on a Mac under Chrome, Option+Command+U will do it. On Safari, once you enable the option via Safari > Preferences > Advanced > Show Develop Menu, you can also use Option+Command+U (just like in Chrome).

In the displayed HTML code, search until you find a line for Javascript like this one:

<script type="text/javascript" encoding="UTF-8" src="

The value consisting of 32 hexadecimal characters (128 bit) after “id=” is the magic value you’re looking for. A full RouteLabo page URI with the download options will look like this:

By replacing the value after “id=” in the URI with the ID from inside the HTML code using copy and paste, you will get a browser URI that will give you full access to the route, including route file download links to feed your GPS device of choice. You can then bookmark it for future reference. Bonne route! 🙂

Exploring the Chuo Shinkansen Maglev Route

Not many cars drive on prefectural road 35 near Akiyama, but I’ve cycled there many times on the way to or from Tsuru city during brevets and other long rides. Akiyama’s claim to fame, other than being a charming rural backwater, is it’s Maglev test track, which will grow into a section of the 286 km Tokyo-Nagoya line scheduled to open 10 years from now in 2027.

The test track was built in the 1990s to develop and test prototypes for the train and track, first 18 km in length, then extended to 42 km to be able to test the train at higher speed. The best detailed summary about the route that I’ve found so far that is not in Japanese is this (in German).

Ten years is not a very long time for a project of this scale, especially when there is always the risk of unforeseen difficulties during tunneling (the known unknowns). A 25 km long tunnel will run between Hayakawa in Yamanashi and Oshika in Nagano. Construction has started at both ends. As the Maglev train needs a near level track, this will be a base tunnel at low elevation. Consequently there will be 1400 m of rock above at its deepest point.

Near the end points at Tokyo and Nagoya, new stations will be built under existing train stations (Shinagawa station in case of Tokyo). The lines will run in tunnels at least 40 m underground. Under Japanese law (“Deep Underground Law”), construction at least 40 m below the surface can be done without having to purchase the land above, as long as its purpose is deemed to be in the public interest.

The Chuo Maglev line has been called the world’s longest subway line, as more than 85% of it will be in tunnels. From Shinagawa the tunnel will first run southwest towards the Tamagawa, passing Senzokuike and crossing the river near Todoroki (between the Daisan Keihin and Tokyo Toyoko line bridges).

It continues on the Kanagawa side towards Sagamihara. Avoiding Machida to the south and Tama New Town to the north, it will run south of Onekansen. The first stop after Shinagawa will be near Hashimoto station, to connect it to the existing rail network (JR Yokohama line, JR Sagami line, Keiō Sagamihara line) with proximity to the Ken’ō Expressway. The Maglev line will cross the Sagami river on a bridge, heading between Tsukui-ko and Miyagase-ko.

A 50 ha railway yard for maintenance with train depot is planned near Toya, which my cycling friends mostly remember for the Sunkus convenience store north of Miyagase-ko. From there the line tunnels west through more mountains to the existing test track.

Altogether there will be 9 emergency exits that connect the line to the surface in the tunnel section near Tokyo.

If you check Google maps for the satellite view, you’ll see the test track line emerge to northwest of Tsuru. where it crosses national route 139 from Otsuki to Kawaguchiko. If you drive out from Tokyo on Chuo expressway, you can see the line cross over the expressway on a bridge. There’s a Yamanashi Prefectural Maglev Exhibition Center nearby.

Heading further west into Yamanashi, the line first stays a little south of Chuo mainline and the Chuo expressway, before those two swing northwest while the Maglev route heads straight west. You can see it emerge for shorts covered bridges near Hatsukari, then pop out for longer viaducts as it crosses national route 137 and prefectural route 36 on the edge of the big Yamanashi plain. The current end of the viaduct is at Fuefuki, Yamanashi, according to Google maps.

There will be a station for Yamanashi prefecture in Ōtsumachi near Kofu, with access to JR Minobu Line.

The Yamanashi plain is where most of the above ground distance of the line will be found. The viaduct sections will either have noise barriers or complete covers. A main reason to opt for viaducts in this area is the relatively high water table, which would complicate tunneling.

The debris from 246.6 km of tunnel drilling amounts to 56.8 million m3 (some 145 million t by weight) that will be deposited at locations along the line.

Personally I’m a skeptic about this project. The time savings compared to regular bullet trains are relatively minor, once you factor in that most people will also spend a fair amount of time getting to and from one of the Maglev stations via conventional public transport.

For the people along the line who don’t live in Tokyo or Nagoya, they get one station per prefecture. Chances are, with Japan’s population on the decline, as the new line starts up that train services on the JR Chuo line, which runs somewhat parallel to the Chuo Shinkansen line, will get thinned out. We’ve seen the same thing with bullet train lines that opened that lead to cutbacks on other regional train connections.

So how much time will people actually save, if they don’t happen to live in Shinagawa and want to go to Nagoya or vice versa? Even Nagoya is only a halfway solution without the extension to Osaka that isn’t scheduled to be completed until 2045 (or 2037, if the central government steps in with a huge loan).

I think the only thing we can say with any certainty about benefits from the project is that, yes, the construction companies and the suppliers of equipment will benefit handsomely. Drilling and lining 247 km of tunnels with concrete and pouring some more of it for 24 km viaducts and 11 km of bridges will make them some money but will add a fair amount of CO2 to the atmosphere. The air resistance of trains at 505 km/h and therefore their energy consumption will definitely be higher than that of conventional trains. One source I saw listed it as having a CO2 output of 2-4x that of conventional commuter trains (not sure how those compare to a shinkansen).

Nevertheless, the dice have been cast and construction is under way. I will try and find more information about where construction is going on and what parts can be explored on bike rides or visited. You can already get train rides at the Maglev visitor center in Tsuru. There was some discussion of extending the test track 7 km to the west and building a station by 2020 to be able to offer test track rides as far as Kofu by the Olympics but without the Kanto connection that seems like a gimmick to me. I doubt that’s going to happen, as all kinds of construction projects are already competing for capacity before the magic Olympic year, driving up prices and busting budgets.

Disc brakes on my Bike Friday (part II)

As I explained here almost two years ago, I have had the front brake of my Bike Friday replaced with a disk brake, an upgrade that involved installing a new fork with disk brake tabs. Now I’m having the same upgrade done one the rear:

I needed to replace the rear wheel anyway because after 37,000 km its rim was worn out. The aluminium of the brake surfaces was already worn past the wear markers. I decided, this was a good time to switch not only the rim but the brake too. With disc brakes, a well built rim will basically last forever. The brake wear will be on the rotor, but that is a cheaper part that can be replaced without the need for a full wheel rebuild. But more importantly, disc brakes are much more effective in the rain, where they are more predictable. I was reminded of that fact again when I descended a winding 20 km from Mt Norikura in the rain last month.

Originally I thought I could get IS disc tabs at the rear by simply swapping the rear triangle, which is a separate hinged part of the folding bike frame, but as it turns out Bike Friday needs to build the main tube and its hinge together with the rear triangle to ensure they will be properly aligned.

I went ahead and placed an order. A couple of weeks later the new main tube and rear triangle arrived. Tokyo Bike Friday dealer ehicle will be swapping all other parts from the existing bike to the new hinged section that has the disc tabs.

I bought a second Shimano BR-CX77 disc brake calliper. I still had a 140 mm centerlock rotor that I had bought two years ago as well as the matching IS adapter. The smaller rotor should be sufficient at the rear, especially with the smaller 20″ wheels. Heat dissipation should be less of a problem for a rear brake, which normally doesn’t have to work as hard as a front brake. I never had any heat problems with the 160 mm rotor at the front.

GS Astuto, my favourite wheel builder, built me a new rear wheel based on the Shimano Deore FH-M615 rear hub and an AlexRims DA22 rim (same as originally came with the bike). The disc brake wheel uses an O.L.D. (Over Locknut Dimension) of 135 mm, but the existing rim brake rear triangle uses 130 mm. Therefore installing the new wheel in the existing frame before the Norikura ride required some effort, but it worked OK. With the new rear triangle that issue will go away.

Once the conversion will be complete, I’ll actually have a spare main tube and rear triangle, a spare fork, two spare rim brakes and two spare hubs. The only frame parts missing to a complete non-disc brake frame will be the steerer and the folding seat tube 🙂 Nevertheless, doing it this way will have been worth it.

Instead of buying a new bicycle, I could first try out at the front what difference a disc brake would make, making only the minimal investment. I never had to send my bike back to the US for a few weeks for an upgrade or pay shipping costs either way. I only lost the use of the bike for a short period for each of the upgrade steps.

I’m looking forward to riding my upgraded bike this weekend, when the work will be complete! 🙂

Disc brake pad and rotor wear

It looks like I get about 6,000 km of useful life out of the disc brake pads on the front of my main bicycle. That’s about 9 months for me (I ride all year round, about 8,000 to 10,000 km per year).

Two years ago I switched my Bike Friday Pocket Rocket to a disc brake on the front by replacing the fork and the front wheel. 1 1/2 years ago I received my Elephant Bikes National Forest Explorer (NFE), a low trail randonneur bike with disc brakes. 9 Months ago I switched the NFE from TRP Spyre mechanical disc brakes with metallic pads to Shimano hydraulic brakes with resin pads. These pads had now worn out, see picture above.

Along with the brake pads I also replaced the front rotor, as the old one had worn quite thin.

Most of the 7,000 km that I had done on the TRP Spyre brakes I had been using metallic pads, as the factory resin pads wore extremely rapidly: I had to keep adjusting the brakes after each Saturday long ride (typically 130-200 km). The metallic pads needed less attention but were very noisy in the rain.

My experience with the Shimano BR-RS785 brakes was much better. As hydraulic brakes their pads were self adjusting. There weren’t any noise issues. Wear is quite acceptable: One set of resin pads every 9 months is not too bad and I expect the new brake rotor will last even longer than 13,000 km / 20 months now that I am only using resin pads. On top of that the modulation on the hydros is great and they need very little effort. I could not be happier!

It is good to have real-life figures from actual use as to how quickly parts will wear on the bike so you can do preventive maintenance. It is better to replace a worn out pad at home when you know that it will be due for replacement soon, rather than finding out on a mountain descent that suddenly you’ve got nothing left to stop you! 🙁

Likewise, I regularly replace shifter cables (about once a year), before they wear out enough to break inside the brifters during a ride away from home, as happened twice to me before I learnt that lesson.

In the past I have been quite easygoing about replacing worn out bicycle chains, but a chain that has “stretched” will wear out your chain rings or cassette more quickly. Chains do decrease in robustness with increasing numbers of gears (from 8 speed to 11 speed) as they increasingly become narrower, so I will probably be replacing my 11 speed chain annually too.

Jōmon Sugi, the hard way

Eight years ago I visited Yakushima island near Kyushu/Japan with my family. We did a lot of hiking to see the ancient Cryptomeria trees in the lush green mountains, but we did not try to go to Jōmon Sugi (縄文杉), the oldest and biggest tree on the island. It is estimated to be around 2000-7000 years old. Visiting it involves an all day hike. At the time I thought it was a bit far for my kids to hike.

Most people take a bus to the Anbo trail. Starting from the Arakawa trail head they walk along the tracks of the old narrow gauge railway previously used for logging. From there they follow the Okabu trail, which consists of a combination of dirt tracks, wooden steps and board walks. The route passes by Wilson’s Stump, the hollow remains of an even bigger tree, the size of a small living room.

The round trip on this route takes about 9-10 hours. People often leave their hotels at 04:00 to catch the first bus to the trail head at 05:00. The last return bus from the trail head leaves at 18:00.

Looking at the map (PDF here), I saw that one could avoid the buses by starting at Shiratani Unsuiko, climbing over the Tsuji Toge Pass and joining the Anbo trail about halfway to the turnoff for the Wilson stump. It involves a lot more climbing and descending, but the up side is that one is not tied to the bus schedule, no need for bus tickets and last but not least, Shiratani Unsuikyo is one of the most beautiful parts of the island. Furthermore, not far from Tsuji Toge Pass lies Taiko Iwa, a rock overlooking a mountainous valley with spectacular views.

We left the hotel in Miyanoura at 06:30. The hotel had prepared two lunch boxes for each of us, one with breakfast that we had in our room and one with lunch for during the hike. After driving up the steep road to Shiratani Unsuikyo high in the mountains, we parked the car in the car park and started to hike.

It was hot and humid but at least we were mostly walking in the shade of the dense forest.

At the Shiratani mountain hut I filled up with water. From the pass we climbed the trail up to Taiko Iwa. It was at least half an hour of detour, but we spent quite a bit more on taking pictures at the top.

A tour guide we met there told us we were probably a bit too late already to still make it to Jōmon Sugi in time to be back at the car park by the evening. Still, we decided to push on and see by what time we could make it to the Wilson stump. I reckoned, if we could make it there by noon we’d be at Jōmon Sugi by 13:00 and back at Shiratani Unsuikyo by 18:00, with about an hour spare before it got dark this time of the year.

Personally I find descents on foot harder than climbs, because they exercise muscles that only get used going downhill whereas climbing is much more similar to the kind of cardio exercise I get from cycling that I’m used to.

After about half an hour of descent we reached the old railway tracks, with wooden planks in the middle that made it easy to walk fast.

After maybe an hour we reached the turn-off for the Wilson stump. From here the course was a lot harder again. Especially the stairs were very hard on the legs.

We encountered some people heading back already. Many groups of people were resting by the side of the trail, either already return from or still heading to the tree.

There are two large viewing platforms near the tree, one below it on the hillside, one above it. For protection you can’t approach the tree itself anymore.

It was still a little before 13:00 when we started the hike back. With about six hours until sunset I was pretty sure we would make it, but it was going to be hard. There was a lot of up and down back to the Wilson stump and the Anbo trail. We rested a while at the Wilson stump, after going inside and taking pictures (there were about 8 people inside the stump at the time).

We were totally drenched in sweat by then. I had brought a towel to wipe my sweat but it was already soaking wet. All my clothes were soaked through. Paper tickets in my backpack dissolved.

I slowed down on the Anbo trail. With the goal of making it to the tree before cut-off time gone, I just wanted to make it to the end with the least amount of pain.

We rested again at the public toilets before the climb back up to the pass. Again I found the climb easier than the descent because my wife and kids slowed down more climbing while I had fallen behind on the descent.

The last kilometers from the Tsuji Toge Pass down to the Shiratani Unsuikyo car park were the hardest. All my muscles were sore.

A few hundred meters before the goal we soaked our feet in the cool water.

Finally we made it to the car, well before 18:00.

On the way down to the coast we passed some Yakushima monkeys. There are many of them all over the island, but especially on the mountains and on the west coast.

My legs were sore for several days after the hike (probably not helped by a canyoning tour the very next morning, which by itself was a lot of fun).

It was a great adventure to combine Jōmon Sugi with Shiratani Unsuikyo and Taiko Iwa. The latter two are definitely a local highlight, and much more interesting than Jōmon Sugi, which even though it’s impressive, is no match for the variety of stunning views at Shiratani Unsuikyo.

One of the hotel staff, who was a keen hiker, told us that even though he had also done the combined route, he had only ever done it once because it’s so hard. I can understand that.

If you want to see Jōmon Sugi, the conventional route on the Anbo trail is much easier, but then you should definitely also go and see Shiratani Unsuikyo separately.

When I next visit Yakushima, I probably won’t be hiking to Jōmon Sugi again, but I would love to visit Shiratani Unsuikyo again, perhaps climbing up from the coast by bicycle. A bicycle loop of the entire coastal road around the island (ca. 130 km) is also on my agenda for a future trip.

BRM520 300 km Mt Fuji

There is one cycling event I have ridden every year since I started long distance cycling five years ago, the 300 km brevet around Mt Fuji organised by AJ Nishitokyo. It was my introduction to randonneuring in 2012. This year I rode it for the sixth time, with unexpected results.

For the first four years I rode my Bike Friday Pocket Rocket, a folding road bike with 20″ (ETRTO 451) wheels. Last year I used my new adventure bike, the Elephant Bikes National Forest Explorer, 650B randonneur bike with disk brakes. Most of my cycling friends expected the bigger wheels would make a big difference on the completion time: The event has a 20 hour time limit and I had always struggled to stay under the limit. The last two years on the Bike Friday I had finished with 11 minutes and 15 minutes spare. The first time on my NFE I finished in 19h 45m again – the same time to the minute as a year before! The Bike Friday really has been a great bike for me and if I had not been fast on it, that wasn’t because of the bike but because of the engine! 😉

Because this event starts at 22:00 at night, with the first 6 1/2 hours of riding through the night, getting enough sleep upfront is essential. I tried to avoid staying up much after midnight for the week before the ride and took short daytime naps on Thursday and Friday. On Saturday afternoon I went to bed at 15:00, planning to sleep until 18:00, but mostly rested. I don’t think I slept more than about the last hour.

I left home at 18:50 to cycle the 28 km to the start in Machida and was intending to ride home after the event too. So that’s 56 km on top of the 304 km of the event itself. I took it very easy, knowing I’d have plenty of time.

I bought bananas at a convenience store a few km before the start. The reception at a park near the Cherubim bike shop in Machida opened at 21:00. I saw many new faces, including younger riders.

It had been warm and sunny all day and the forecast for Sunday was the same, so I didn’t even wear a windbreaker at the start. Only for the early morning descent from Gotemba to Numazu did I bring my nylon rain pants, because that was going to be the coldest time of the night, before sunrise and going downhill for about 25 km.

The briefing started at 21:30. There aren’t any changes to the course from the year before, but temperatures would be quite different as last year’s event had been run about 8 weeks earlier in the year. Knowing it would get hot on the long climb on the opposite side of Mt Fuji, I decided to build up a decent time buffer until the morning, when it was still cool, so I would not risk overheating as much later in the day.

After the security inspection we started. The route to the untimed checkpoint in front of some public toilets in Enoshima (38.6 km), where we had to collect a signature on the brevet card from staff members, was pretty urban, with streetlights, cars and traffic lights all along. I made good time and arrived before midnight. It helped that I didn’t have to stop to take off a layer.

There was a large group motorbikes near the checkpoint. I came across groups of bikers throughout the ride, including several encounters with Bōsōzoku clubs making a racket on their two stroke bikes and weaving about on the road.

About half of the 35 km route from Enoshima to PC1 at Odawara I was drafting other cyclists, similar to last year. The Nitto Randonneur bars make it much easier to use my drops to get into a more aerodynamic position to save energy. I arrived at PC1 at 01:26, with 86 minutes spare, 5 minutes more than last year.

After Odawara the route starts climbing until it levels out at an elevation of about 400 m around Gotemba. I was still riding mostly with other cyclists. In Gotemba I put on my wind breaker and nylon pants for the descent. I rode down to Numazu with another cyclist, separated only temporarily when I stopped to take a shot of the first Mt Fuji view around 04:00, still about half an hour before sunrise. A waning moon hung in the eastern sky. It reminded me that we’re only three months away from the total solar eclipse in the western US on Aug 21, 2017.

Though I was yawning at times, I felt no urge to take a nap and continued on to Fuji city, maintaining my pace. I only stopped for a few quick photos of Fuji in the early morning light.

I counted down the distance to the Fujikawa bridge, where the road turns away the coast. I used the public toilets near the Tomei expressway entrance, so I could avoid queuing at PC2, only a couple of km up the road.

I tried to take pictures of Mt Fuji from the south-west, but the sun was behind it and the air was too hazy.

I made it to PC2 by 06:56, 132 minutes ahead of closing time. This was 26 minutes earlier than the year before.

It was still early in the morning, but it was already getting warm. From here it was about 36 km uphill, from close to sea level to about 1100 m. Some of the road was shaded under trees, but most of it was exposed to the sun.

Having done this brevet before, I knew this part of the ride was both rewarding for its views of Mt Fuji and green landscapes, but also tough for the relentlessly climbing road where I was pedaling in the heat. I had also done it on a rainy day, with only a few degrees above freezing, that wasn’t much fun either.

Until the climbing started I had consoled myself that even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, the elevation (adiabatic cooling) would somehow make it bearable. Somebody forgot to pass that message to my Navi2coach GPS, whose thermometer displayed as high as 39 C at one point.

The air may have been cooler over the meadows and forests I was passing, but the south-tilted dark asphalt of the prefectural road 71 soaked up just as much sunshine at elevation as it would have at sea level. I was like riding on top of a barbecue. I stopped a couple of times for views and pictures and that made it easier to continue.


I made it to the top around 10:30 and pulled into a parking area and view point overlooking Motosuko (Lake Motosu).

I took a couple of pictures, ate a banana and got back on the bike again. After a bit of rolling terrain the road descended. The forest surrounding it is called Aokigahara (青木ヶ原), also known as the Suicide Forest for the number of people who picked it to take their own lives there.

At the bottom of the descent, the minor road joined major Rt139, which is usually crowded with cars. Some of it’s surface is very rough, especially around Fujiyoshia. This is where the wide tires of my NFE really helped. They give me the confidence to descend faster even where the road surface is far from perfect.

After Fujiyoshida came a 25 km fast descent down to Tsuru. I didn’t have to pedal much and trusted my tires to deal with the bumps and cracks at speed, with several other cyclists in trail, none of whom ever tried to overtake me until after the road leveled out. It was till before noon and heating up more and more.

At 12:20 three of us pulled into PC3 at Tsuru. That was 92 minutes ahead of closing time. I knew I had previous made here with only 35 minutes spare. I was now 47 minutes ahead of last year’s result. But it was still going to get hotter for another hour or more from here.

The final 66 km from Tsuru to Machida were the hottest part of the ride. I used my lightest gear a lot, climbing slowly to avoid overheating. I am not usually someone who worries much about heat stroke. I drink sufficient water and keep the effort down when I feel it’s getting too hot out there, but this time I was starting to worry. Three or four of us stayed together more or less continually for the last leg of the trip, nobody willing to go any faster in this heat. I counted down the distances to the top of each climb.

Finally we made it to Doushi road (National route 413), for a lengthy descent. we stopped at a convenience store where AJ Nishitokyo staff met with us. Some ice cream cooled me down a bit. Based on the remaining distance it looked like I could finish before 17:00, with more than an hours pare. That would be my best result ever.

I felt relieved when I crossed the last major bridge, where I crossed back into the urban area of Sagamihara and counted down the final kilometers to Machida.

At 16:51 I pulled up in front of the Cherubim bike shop, together with one of the other participants. I had finished 54 minutes faster than in 2015 and 2016.

I’m very happy to have made it safely. I thanked the AJ Nishitokyo staff. As always they took good care of everyone. The route is difficult, but rewarding. I often incorporate large parts of it into other long distance rides that I do privately.

As to why I finished so much quicker this year, I am not sure. Looking at the elapsed times between PCs both years, I gained 21 minutes between PC1-PC2, another 21 minutes between PC2-PC3 and 7 minutes even from the last PC to the goal, in the heat. So I was pretty consistently faster. The first 73 km to PC1 is where I gained the least relative to last year (5 minutes), probably because I was already working hard there last year. Overall I took about a 100 photographs on both rides, so it wasn’t that I stopped less for pictures.

Perhaps my two recent rides of the Oume temple loop, with 2500-2700 m of elevation gain on 180+ km of cycling each time, helped prepare me for the amount of climbing 🙂 Whatever it was, I’m happy!

Oh, and I did ride 28 km back to Tokyo after the brevet, tired and sleepy, but I made it safely. I won’t be able to ride AJ Nishitokyo’s 400 km brevet this year due to business trips and I’m not sure yet if I’ll attempt the 600 km brevet in September again – I have DNF’ed (did not finish) it three times so far. Finishing it is a bit like riding a 400 km brevet, then finish this 300 km brevet starting from the bottom of the big climb at PC2… Pretty insane!

What I enjoy about these brevets is not just the scenery and the challenge, but also the camaraderie and shared love of cycling among randonneurs. We all have this same passion.

Elephant Bikes NFE Goes 11 Speed (with OX601D and hydraulic brakes)

It’s been almost 8 months since I started riding my Elephant Bikes National Forest Explorer (NFE). See the original build report here. Since then I have made several significant changes. Here is my bike as I was taking a box full of bike parts to GS Astuto, my local bike shop, to do the upgrade:

In May I switched from Compass Babyshoe Pass EL tyres with Schwalbe tubes to regular Compass Babyshoe Pass (non-EL) set up tubeless. In November I switched back to the original setup. Basically, it wasn’t worth the hassle. The front tyre started leaking through its side walls and no amount of sealant added would stop the leakage. The valves got pretty badly clogged by sealant foam injected through the valve. And finally I found that when switching back to the BSP EL tyres remounting them was trivially easy, quite unlike my experience when I had the first puncture, probably because I had since learnt how to properly mount a tyre on tubeless ready rims (hint: push the beads towards the centre channel of the rim to create enough slack).

The second change was to get rid of the Honcho Turtle 58 mudguards and replacing them with SKS plastic mudguards. The Honcho mudguards were beautiful, made from hammered aluminium. They gave the bike a classic look that drew many admiring glances. Trouble is, they were too tight. Even though they were advertised for 650B tyres as wide as 42 mm, I would not recommend them for anything beyond 38 mm. If either the mudguard or the wheel was not exactly centered I would sometimes get wheel rub, which really scared me: I do not want the mudguard to wear through the tyre sidewall.

I bought some SKS Bluemels (SKS-K-BM65-26-21-235) for 5700 yen instead. These 65 mm wide mudguards are designed for 26″ MTB wheels with tyre withs of 2.1-2.35 inches, but they work great for 650B. There’s plenty of clearance with 42 mm tyres and I may even get away with 47 m if wanted to go that way. The only difficult part of the installation was trimming the fairly beefy steel stays to the appropriate length.

The third change was the biggest: I replaced the crank set, chain, cassette, derailleurs, shifters and brakes. I had been unhappy with the shift quality on my TD-2 touring triple, which was nothing like what I was used to from my Shimano 5703 triple. I ended up with dropped chains, chains that slide between the middle and the inner ring, upshifts and downshifts that overshoot, upshifts that require immediate counter-trimming, etc. I don’t know if the culprit were the chain rings or if it was the front derailleur, but I finally decided to replace the triple with a Sugino “Compact Plus” small double. I could have stayed with a 10 speed setup, but I wasn’t so happy with my TRP Spyre mechanical disc brakes either. If I switched to 11 speed I had the option of installing Shimano hydraulic disc brakes. So that’s what I ended up doing.

The new crank set is a Sugino OX601D. It is very similar to its more upmarket siblings, the OX801D and OX901D, which basically work exactly the same, but look more refined and come with different chain ring options. It’s a two piece crank (the old triple was a square taper three piece design), much like modern Shimano cranks. With both a 110 mm and 74 mm bolt circle, it can fit an outer of 40-50T and an inner of 24-36T. Inner rings of 24T-32T are 74 mm BCD (Sugino bolt set B) while 34-36 share the 110 mm BCD with the outer ring (Sugino bolt set A). The crank set offers a narrow Q-factor of 145 mm and a standard double chainline of 43.5 mm. I am using a Sugino PE110S-42T as my outer and a Sugino 74J-26T as my inner. Combined with a rear cassette of 11-32 I get gearing all the way from 21 to 100 gear inches. That means climbing as slow as 6 km/h at 60 rpm in the lowest gear or descending as fast as 47 km/h at 100 rpm and all without huge cadence jumps on rear shifts.

I went for ST-RS685 shifters, which are Ultegra grade. The 105-level ST-RS505 would have worked too. For the rear derailleur I went with the medium cage Ultegra RD-6800 GS — 105 RD-5800 GS would have been fine too. The new front derailleur is a FD-CX70, Shimano’s 10 speed Ultegra grade top-pull cyclocross derailleur. Shimano does not yet offer a top-pull derailleur for 11 speed road groups, but the 10 speed part works fine. There’s supposed to be a difference in cable pull, but it doesn’t really matter.

The new shifters and cables shift lighter than the previous Ultegra 6700 ones. The front shift is just as trouble free as on my Shimano 105 triple on my Bike Friday. Since the distance in gear ratios on the double front rings is wider than with the triple, I need to countershift three clicks instead of one on a front shift, but that’s easy.

I love the new disc brakes. The BR-RS785 calipers offer very light action with great modulation and plenty of bite when you mean business. On top of that they are self-adjusting. I basically won’t have to touch them until the pads wear out.