The Tour de France? No, the real tough hill climbing cycle event is the Tour de Utsukushigahara, with its gekisaka (檄坂 – severe slope). The race is only 22km in distance, but ascends 1,270 metres up to Utsukushigara from Asama Onsen (in Matsumoto) – the first few hundred metres of the race ascendup an 18% incline. Last weekend, I headed up to Asama Onsen, with a group of friends – Phil, Matt, Bruce, Naoko & Dan) to take on the mountain and join the Tour. Most of them had done the race before, but I was a first timer anda little unsure whether I’d make it. Matt is an around-the-world cyclist who has just arrived from England by bike (see worldwidebikeride.com), and was not going to rest up too much in Tokyo when there was a mountain to race up!
Asama Onsen is a short distance from Matsumotocity centre, at the base of the mountain range. It’s a hot spring resort with many ryokan and other lodgings, andpopular with weekenders from Tokyo. The local community really gets out and supports the Tour de Utsukushigahara, with shops displaying race posters in their windows, and locals lining the streets and cheering the cyclists as they start the race.
The course runs from the sports centre car park, up a gradual hill through the town shops, and then suddenly and sharply up a winding mountain road. The first 4 km feels like it’s straight up, with the beginning at 18%. Many people walk around the first few hairpins, because it’s so steep.
Here’s a description and diagram of the course (in Japanese): http://www.mspo.jp/jca09/course.html
I also mapped out the course on Google maps:
Our accommodation at Asama Onsen was Sakamoto no Yuu, run by Phil’s parents-in-law. It has a very friendly atmosphere, a great onsen, and the Takizawas normally put on fantastic kaiseki food (although were nice to put on a high-carb dinner and breakfast for our group). Other cyclists were also staying, andthe reception area was full of cyclists tinkering with their bikes the night before the race. Sakamoto no Yuu is highly recommended – even if you just want a lazy onsen weekend (and Mr & Mrs Takizawa speak great English and will go out of their way to make non-Japanese speaking guests welcome).
The Registration and Warm-up
Registration for the race was on the Saturday afternoon before the early Sunday morning start, in the car park which would be the marshaling area before the start of the race. Race bike mechanics fixed the wobble in my rear wheel for me, and cheap merchandise was on sale at some stalls that were set up. It was cyclist heaven!
There was some entertainment on the stage, including this guy doing some very impressive mountain bike tricks:
After all this, we decided to go for a short ride (or so I was told) up the hill to test out the course. If I wasn’t going to get up that hill on a test run, there was no way I was going to do it as part of the race. Matt left us behind, and when I arrived puffing and swearing at the top, he decided to continue a bit further up the hill to see how far he could get before dinner time. I thought I’d leave a few surprises for the morning, and headed back down. Here’s Matt and I at Misuzu-ko – me about to stagger back down the hill, and Matt about to continue zooming up it.
The Pre-Race Disaster
We were warming up, heading down to the start line when it happened – Matt took a minor tumble on the grate of a drain, and broke his cleat as his foot came out of the pedal. Of course, the very important bolt that was required to re-attached the cleat to his shoe fell into the drain, and Matt was a bit forlorn for a few minutes as he realised that it’s not possible to race up a mountain with only one pedal.
No amount of pondering would get that bolt out of the drain, or fix his shoe. So it was a frantic run down to the local bike shop, which looked like it was handling a few pre-race emergencies, andwith only moments to spare before Matt’s start time, his cleat was back on the shoe and he was on his way. Apparently it broke again only a few minutes into the race, but not as severely and he managed to still complete the race in a really zippy time. He would have gone even quicker if everything was attached properly.
There were over 2,000 entrants in the race, so there were various start times for different categories. The photo below is the Champions category, which is for riders who have managed to finish the race below 1hr 20min in previous years. Matt just missed this cut-off time this year, despite the broken cleat.
I was in the men’s C category,which was for men in their 30s. This was the biggest category, and blocks of 100 riders started at staggered times.
At 7:58am, my group left the start line. It wasn’t long before I needed my first rest, so it was a good photo opportunity. (All the below photos were taken when I needed a rest…) This is the first hill, which just kept going up and up and up.
At least I wasn’t the only one stopping!
Further up the mountain, there were more steep sections, and more hairpins. “Fighto fighto!” the other riders would yell out to me as they saw me stop.
The last 2 or 3 kilometres were along the mountain high plains, which were bright with orange azaleas, and had views across to the Japanese Alps. This was extremely welcome after the hard slog up the hill! And there was a chance to get a bit of speed up along the more gentle downhills. (This photo was taken on the ride back down the mountain after the race – I don’t want you to think I had to stop for a break on the downhill!)
After 2hrs 24mins, I finally made it, and had a cheer squad to meet me. Although I was last of our group, I had a very warm rosy feeling to make it across the line!
Matt’s efforts will be the stuff of future Tour de Utsukushigahara legend- the round-the-world cyclist who raced up the hill in near Champion category time witha broken cleat. His description of his ride is on his WorldWideBikeRide website.
- Matt 01:21:45 (261st overall) – legendary
- Phil 01:40:04 (936th). Great result – consistently good every year – has ridden almost every Tour de Utsukushigakara.
- Bruce 01:58:27 (1438th) – I thought I might have a fighting chance of crossing the finish line before Bruce, because my start time was half an hour earlier. But despite the ample head start, he was too quick and pipped me about 1km before the finish for a sub 2 hour race
- Naoko 02:02:28 (1483rd) – a great effort, just missing the 2 hour mark.
- Me 02:23:24 (1722nd overall – I still had a few hundred people behind me) (See 555th in my category at this link to the results).
But the clear winner of our group was Dan, who was up that mountain in 29th overall position in 1:10. His time was less than half of mine!
Here are some news articles about the race (in Japanese):
I’ve found one of the race participants has uploaded the course, in photos and GPS points, to the Everytrail website. Have a look at the below in-line widget – it’s really neat, and should give you a better idea of what the course up the mountain was like.