Utsukushigahara Hill Climb Bike Race 2014

Utsukushigahara homepageWe drove up to Matsumoto from Gunma’s Numata city around 12:30 pm on Saturday.  We took the low roads instead of the highway because it is really only about 30 minutes difference and it’s a much nicer drive. 

Looks easy via this view doesn't it?

Looks easy via this view doesn’t it?

It rained all day Saturday and it poured buckets during the night.  But by 5 a.m. it had stopped and the clouds started to break.  The 4 of us woke up in our small room, had some coffee, energy bars and what not, got changed, prepared our bikes and headed to the race.  I did this race 2 years ago and my time was 1:22:23 .   I beat it by ove 7 minutes this year.  Stats are at the end of this blog.

Utsukushigahara Hills of ustsukushiWhen I entered for this race on-line my friend talked me into going in the “expert” class which I totally regretted this morning when I woke up and started getting really nervous.  Then to make it look like I’m really cocky, I placed my bike right at the front of the line where I stood next to Japanese legend Imanaka Daisuke san (He has raced in the Tour de France) and shared a lengthy conversation.  I’m sure it will appear on the NEWS and make it look like I’m some “foreign” ex pro or something. 

Me and Imanaka Daisuke

But that image quickly changed when they counted down and we all raced off to start the climb and I got swallowed up!  The first 5 KM are very steep with an average grade of 18% and everyone was out of their saddles. 

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That quickly separated the men from the boys but to my surprise I was still somewhere near the front 30%.  I found a young guy and stuck my wheel right behind his and kept my head down.  By the 8 KM mark I thought I had over exerted myself too early and I was thinking of falling off his wheel until we got a nice 4% grade for 400 meters which got my lungs back.  After that I actually ended up pulling him for a little while (you never know how the others are holding up do you?).  Then out of the blue Mr. Imanaka smoothly rides by me and says in Japanese, “Hey, you’re strong”! And I replied, “Yeah, up until this moment”.  I’d love to say “It’s all down here from here” but that really has a different meaning in cycling does it?

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My heart-rate was quite high and I worried about how long I could hold on but I somehow managed until the 16 KM mark where it leveled out and even descended in some parts!  At my 72 kg weight I’m not designed for hill climbing.  I carry a lot of upper body muscle.  Especially with these 58-62 kg riders next to me.  But at the top when it leveled for 3 KM I was strong as could be and I actually left a few of the guys I was riding with behind.  Don’t ask me how!  However, one of them stayed with me and we raced the last 200 meter hill and I lost by a foot!  I think he sling shot from my draft but I don’t mind though since he was half my age and that’s a smart tactic.  In fact, as I mentioned, someone carried me for about 6 KM. I had a great time.  My time was 1:15:25 which is about 7 minutes faster than before.  In the champion class I finished 39th.  Most champion riders were in their 20’s though.  Plus out of 498 forty year old’s, I placed 13th.  But here’s the weird facts.
If I was in the 20 year old group I’d have placed 9th out of 134 riders.

Finally over the topCrossing the finish line.

In the 30 year old group my time would have made me 31st our of 354 riders.  And in the 40 year old group I’d have been 14th out of 491 riders.  So, all in all I’m happy with that.  More important “Da Boyz” and I shared some great moments and a heap of laughs.

IMG_4022 IMG_4014 Da BoyzBeer time.

Tour de Kusatsu 2012

The Tour de Kusatsu is a very misleading name.  You really don’t tour anywhere.  In fact, there is a heck of a lot of standing around in zero degrees Celsius weather waiting for the race to start.

That’s not to say that it isn’t a great race.  I really like it for a race that kicks off the season.  It’s very well organized with volunteers, police, radio, TV, sponsors, samples, pro riders and more!

However, this year in particular was a little disappointing.  The course is suppose to be 13 km’s straight up to the top of Shinane (an active volcano ) but the weather turned for the worse the day before and the top of Shinane was snowing and the fog was as thick as clam chowder soup.  So instead of canceling the event, they shortened the distance to 6 kms.  You can bet out of the 3000 participants a lot were disappointed. Many had driving from Tokyo or farther and booked rooms to sleep in the night before.   I myself thought about turning around and heading back to Numata (60 km south) but though since I’d already paid the 5000 yen fee I might as well ride it.

"I thought it was spring"?

“I thought it was spring”?

My friends Yukiya, Masashi, his wife and I left Numata at 6 am.  We met at a 7-11 and headed up in two vehicles.  The weather was cloudy and threatening to rain and the forecast said it eventually would.  The question was if we could beat it and get the race over with before it came down.

On the drive up, Yukiya received a phone call from his son who is a pro rider for Takezawa cycle and was already up at the race with team and crew.  He told Yukiya that the race was canceled due to really bad weather at the top.  I couldn’t believe my luck because I entered another race back in August last year that also got canceled thanks to heavy rain.  Regardless, we decided to get there and check things out further and found out it wasn’t really canceled but “shortened” to only 6 kms.  I was told going any farther up the mountain would result in thick fog, blizzard like winds and snow on the road.  It was 0 C at the base and everyone looked very cold but as they say on Broadway, “the show must go on”.

After the race returning to the base.

After the race returning to the base.

We changed into our winter cycling wear and tried to warm up by climbing the first kilometer of the mountain several times but the decent was freezing fingers and toes.

Finally, when over the speakers they asked us all to congregate to the start line, they then showered us with speeches from everyone and their dog.  Anyone who brought rollers or attempted to do a warm up prior to the race quickly found themselves shaking for 20 – 30 minutes while waiting.   Finally, they wished us all luck and the elite athletes took to the hill first.

"I hope I'm still on the main road"!

“I hope I’m still on the main road”!

6 km’s hardly seems like a race at all really.  I’d been training for the 13 km ride for six weeks climbing up and down route 145 to Lockheart castle 3 times in a row, once a week as interval training to get ready for this.  I had improved immensely from the first feeble attempt at doing that a month and a half ago.  My last time up to Lockheart had been my best by a good 1:30 and got to the top at 18:05.  The climb to Lockheart is much steeper and more grueling that the Tour de Kusatsu so I was looking forward to seeing my time here but I will have to wait until next year to see the full 13 km race results.

Everyone seems to be sporting a beautiful bike these days and to stereo type a Japanese person if I may, they all buy the best wear and look the part of a pro rider.  I was intimidated to say the least and almost relieved that I wouldn’t be punishing myself for the full 13 km.  Add to that the fact that is was a race against the clock and it was hard to tell anyone’s time besides your own and I managed to feel relaxed before I charged up.  Everyone had a microchip device attached to their front fork that records the start and finish of your time accurately.